Redefining the role of the ad agency

Posted by Opinion desk on 14 Apr, 2010 / Features

By Andrew Gillett, MD of Lowe Bull Cape Town

Are the glory days of the advertising industry over? If one were to go by the statistics, the answer would be a resounding yes. Hit-rates are significantly lower than in past decades, and while there are always a few exceptions, TV ads just don’t generate the hype that they did back in the 80s and 90s. Think about it: when was the last time you discussed your favourite ad with friends? Chances are, you probably can’t remember.

Having recently returned to play the advertising game after a 10-year stint in publishing, the decline in the popularity and power of ads has led me to question why the industry is losing its collective potency.

Andrew Gillett

And, perhaps more importantly, it has forced me to reassess the role of the modern ad agency.  Are we failing in our quest to deliver relevant, original and transformative communication?

My initial response to this question was a defensive one. How can ad agencies possibly compete with the plethora of new information and messages that are constantly being channelled over the airwaves, courtesy of the new digital era?

Naturally, my defensive instincts went further to point out that we also happen to be working in one of the toughest economic periods of the last 20 years. Brand managers are being far more cautious with their money and are not prepared to risk their brand equity with a bold new ad campaign that will potentially have consumers re-evaluating the product. Indeed, we are increasingly seeing these brand managers recoiling into the safe-haven of running old work for extended periods, rather than  risk fresh campaigns.

To add to the list of ad agency woes, marketers have become too reliant on research to make decisions for them. Now a good adman will immediately make the argument that research offers a rational insight into how consumers respond to a piece of communication. However, when they experience it in the privacy of their homes, they react to it emotionally without the pressurising influence of a moderator standing over them.  In fact, many veterans of the industry would argue that research has killed numerous potentially award-winning and breakthrough ideas because conservative or timid clients allow it to validate a scientific reason why an idea should be axed, rather than going on instinct.

Finally, to conclude the defence, I would draw attention to the fact that clients are increasingly giving agencies an ever-growing checklist of items the communication must convey (obviously measured by said research) rather than supply the agency with a single-minded idea or proposition off which the big idea can hang.

Having worked through this apparently logical list of reasons why ad agencies should take no blame for the current state of the game, it becomes uncomfortably obvious that the industry has some serious soul-searching to do, because none of the above mentioned problems are insurmountable.

A good starting point for self-reflection is to define what the role of the ad agency really is. In my view, what agencies have to offer clients was always pretty simple. We guided them in understanding their business problems and needs, and we conducted research to gain an understanding of their market and how best to communicate with it. The next step would be to write a marketing plan, backed up by a communications plan, which was distilled down into a Creative Platform. This was where the agency really got busy to produce the Big Idea, off which all the ensuing creative work would hang.

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