Mad Men, a simpler time of real men, real problems and lots of sex on mid century design classics. Image courtesy of Slate.

Unfortunately much advertising is self indulgent nonsense that simply serves to waste the client’s money and the consumer’s time.

Sometimes, just sometimes this work is the product of precious and pretentious creative endevour that is brought into being simply to puff up the bloated ego of a creative director seeking to shove his make-weight agency up the award’s league tables.
However, more often than not the hollow stuff that troubles us most is not the product of some creative flight of fancy but the result of a hollow brief. And the blame for that must lie squarely at the feet of the client community, for being less than clear about the business problem they are trying to solve and less than clear about how advertising might be used to solve it.
You see advertising loves problems, the bigger and hairier the better. It is one of the reasons that some of the most creative and effective work in the market is done to Government briefs where there is often a proper problem and a need for a serious change in behaviour.
Ask any good creative agency what they crave most from clients and they will tell you that they want a clear and unambiguous problem to solve. In other words an objective. Inspirational client briefs are fantastic, especially if you can get a whiff of the spiritual brief that the client organisation really needs to deliver against. However, I’d sacrifice any amount of inspiration for a serious business objective every day of the week. Serious objectives like ‘slowing the loss of a retailer’s business to online competitors’, ‘increasing every transaction by £1.14’ or ‘become the clear number three in the market by taking share from the two dominant brands’. Not wooly nonsense like ‘increase brand awareness’ or ‘launch our product into the market’ and still less ‘make people love and engage with my brand’.
A desire for proper business problems partly explains the delight taken by the industry in the 1960’s advertising drama, Madmen. Sure there was a good dose of envy over a job which seemed to involve drinking vast quantities of whisky at all times of the day and having sex on top of mid-century design classics. However, its real success in adland was down to a wistful longing for a time when clients were actually clients. In other words the people that ran and had often founded the business being advertised and simply wanted to sell more of their products by any means necessary.
Of course the arrival of professional marketing departments has changed the relationships that agencies have with client organisations and the roles that they play for them. But it hasn’t change the need for clear business objectives.
And don’t for a moment think that the digital world is exempt from this criticism, because of an obsession with accountability. Interaction levels, click through rates and dwell times are important but they are not business objectives. The truth is if ad agencies have got it bad when it comes to getting proper problems to solve the digital community has got it far worse. All too often digital briefs are either at the terminally intermediate end of the spectrum, asking for an ever lower cost per response, or at the terminally fluffy end asking for lots of lovely brand engagement and little else.
This post originally appeared as a column in New Media Age.

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