Why agencies must resist lazy marketers

Posted by News desk on 28 May, 2010 / News

Marketers must stop “sucking the life” from their agencies and instead provide them with the direction and freedom they require to provide great advertising, Geoff Whyte, Africa and Middle East commercial director of Cadbury, told the Apex effective advertising awards in his keynote speech.

This is an edited version of Whyte’s speech.

Consumers are now, more than ever, able to filter out what they don’t want to see. So to be successful we can no longer be in the business of interrupting content. We need to be in the business of creating it. In the very near future, to engage with consumers at all, we will need to create brand communication that consumers choose to watch.

Keynote speaker Geoff Whyte

This isn’t easy but it’s only half the problem. We must also persuade through the content we create, that our brand is different and special, in a way that will make consumers want to buy it. So the challenge for us all going forward is to create “persuasive content”. This requires a paradigm shift in the way we approach marketing and advertising. 

I would guess that less than 5% of current commercials satisfy both these “want to watch” and “persuasive” criteria. But in the near future, delivering equally well on these measures will become the qualifying level to get your brand into the game.  

So if we are now in the content business, what do consumers want to watch? From a traditional advertising perspective we know they are bored to death by the familiar. They get excited by ideas they’ve never seen before. They engage with fresh thinking, they respond to it and they tell their friends about it.

Raymond Rubicam, when he founded Y&R in the 1940s told his agency that the power of any creative idea is inversely proportional to the number of times it’s been used before. He challenged his fledgling organisation to “resist the usual”. Fresh ideas demand attention, they have the power to make people think differently.

We need to persuade as well as engage. And that is very hard. Making “persuasive content” requires marketers and advertising agencies to be at the top of their game. In the symbiotic relationship between the two, one cannot succeed without the other. And I’m concerned about our ability here in SA to succeed in this new environment.

Not because I think we have weak agencies, but because I think we have too many weak clients. I am tired of hearing marketers blame agencies for their own shortcomings. The best agencies in the world will never be able to shine if they don’t get focused direction from their clients. Clear marketing thinking liberates creativity.

Sadly, however, the converse is also true and I pity SA agencies who struggle so often with poor briefs, or worse, no brief at all. With a few notable exceptions our marketers need to significantly raise their game. Their laziness and incompetence is seriously limiting agencies’ ability to do great work. In advertising, like so many things in life, rubbish in usually equals rubbish out.

So what do clients need to bring to the party? First, they need to define what makes their brand different and special with focus and clarity. Not a laundry list, but a concise description.

They also need to provide insights into the consumers they are targeting: their behaviours, their attitudes and what they think about the brand in question. Many weighty books have been written about the job of marketing but I’ve always thought it’s very simple. You need to move consumers from what they believe about your brand, to what you want them to believe.

If you make that happen, you’ll cause a lasting change in their buying behaviour. Clients need to give clear direction to their agencies. But they need to do more. They need to foster genuine creative partnerships with them. Partners make equal contributions, they are committed to each other, they treat each other with respect and they take joint responsibility for what they produce.

All too often, marketers in SA don’t provide clear direction. Their commitment to their agency runs from week to week. They threaten to fire them regularly. They treat their agency disrespectfully and blame them when the output is inevitably poor.

If SA is to remain at the top table of world advertising this needs to change quickly. Given that marketers hold most of the power in agency relationships, responsibility for this change rests with them.

But agencies also need to do things differently. They must stop accepting poor thinking and shoddy briefs from marketers. Until that happens they will continue to carry the can for poor work and drive a downwards spiral of mediocrity. Trying to work around a clueless client is in no-one’s interest.

It does an agency’s reputation no good to produce poor work, it doesn’t help the client because weak advertising doesn’t sell products, and it means that marketers are never put under any pressure to get better. I applaud agencies that refuse to pitch on brands with certain companies and those that resign accounts on principle.

Sucking the life out of your agency trying to please an impossible client damages your business and reputation. The type of client who behaves like this is going to fire you pretty soon anyway. As Oscar Wilde once said : “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”

So be tougher, be more demanding. Don’t sell yourself short. Focus on making great work with great clients. Lift the standard by example and be fearless. Fortune favours the brave. On the subject of bravery, we need a lot more of this on both sides of the fence. Clients need to have the courage to make decisions about what defines their brand and to take responsibility for those decisions.

Dumping everything they know on an agency and expecting them to make sense of it, is ducking their responsibility. They also need to be brave enough to demand and buy fresh creative ideas. In marketing, the familiar is attractive only to the mediocre.

But there is some good news for the creative and the ambitious in this new environment. As the way people consume media has changed, so has the balance of risk for advertisers. Playing safe by doing the same old stuff now means being filtered out of consumers’ lives. Finding a fresh way to engage a target audience stands some chance of success.

So being brave creatively is now much less risky. This is a significant shift that none of us can afford to ignore. It is highly liberating. It forces us to challenge the status quo. As George Bernard Shaw once said:  “The reasonable man tries to adapt his proposals to fit the world. Only the unreasonable man tries to adapt the world to fit his proposals – therefore all progress comes from the unreasonable man.”

I worry that in the interest of short-term profit, agencies have lost their ambition to change the world. They have forgotten how to be “unreasonable” and along the way, they’ve halted progress. Agencies must find the courage to give honest feedback to their clients.

They also must be brave enough to walk away if they are put in a position where their ability to deliver quality work is compromised. I look at some agency-client relationships where the work is terrible and everyone knows it, and where the client abuses the agency daily. But they hang in there anyway, appreciating any crumb of clarity or encouragement.

It’s like a bad case of Stockholm syndrome – the paradoxical phenomenon where hostages express love for their captors. Psychologists think this reaction is rooted in a primitive gratitude for the gift of life: crediting the captor as giving life simply by not taking it. But clients don’t have the power of life and death over an agency. If you find yourself in this situation, recognise it and be brave enough to try to change things or resign the account.

Along with more courage on both sides, we also need to rediscover our ambition to be up there with the world’s best. Agencies must stop doing work they know is poor, and start aiming high again. They must also find the courage to pitch ambitious new ideas to clients, even if they think they’ll get shot down. If marketers can sort out their thinking and grow some balls, they’ll start buying them!

I think it’s tragic that so many of the fresh creative ideas that win advertising awards these days weren’t driven by a client brief but by an agency that saw an opportunity to do something new and exciting on their own. Great creativity should be aligned with great brand thinking and backed with major budgets to sell product – not flighted once in the middle of the night on SABC3.

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