Cynicism

David Ogilvy famously asked clients of his agency wanting to write their own work, “why keep a dog and bark yourself?” Half a century later it appears that for some clients the answer is “who needs a bloody dog?”

Which brings us to the thorny question of why use an advertising agency at all.

One of the more curious things about the advertising business is that it hires strategic and creative talent that might otherwise go straight into client organisations and rents them back at somewhat of a premium. This is true of most professional service firms (from accountants to management consultants) but the practice is all the more peculiar in marketing, where the people on either side of the fence are so alike. Indeed many move from one to the other throughout their career.

So it is no wonder the idea of cutting out the overheads, the general argy-bargy and the five sashimi selection at Roka and taking the whole advertising process in-house, appeals to some clients.

And by and large agencies haven’t had much of an answer to this. Except perhaps to mutter something unconvincing about client organisations or locations being far from conducive to creativity. The trouble is, while there may be some truth in this, there are too many examples, from Specsavers to Burberry and 4Creative that unhelpfully disprove the idea.

So what are clients really buying when they use an agency? Well of course it is partly the concentration of world-class strategic and creative talent that can be easily applied to their business problems, by and large assembled in one place. That goes without saying. But it’s something else too and perhaps something just as powerful. And that is pure unadulterated cynicism.

It may seem strange given the puppy-dog enthusiasm of the advertising industry but cynicism is at the heart of the agency offering. For, while advertising agencies are inclined to love their clients and the products and services they make, they are also paid to stay away well away from the Kool-Aid.

Agencies are partly valued because their healthy scepticism protects brands and consumers from the corporate wishful thinking that stalks the halls of most organisations. As a brief works its way into an agency and an idea works its way out of it there are innumerable filters in place ready to call bullshit on bullshit. You only need to have been a junior planner attempting to land a smelly brief on the desk of a seasoned creative to learn the value of cynicism.

Critical to being critical is that agency people are only indirectly paid by clients. A healthy agency with its revenue spread across many brands can afford to be as passionate about the truth and the consumer as they are about the brand or the client. High quality brand advice is possible precisely because account handlers, planners and creatives can voice this advice without fear or favour.

This is the real lesson of the ‘Pepsi challenge’. I’m sure that the work in question was the product of great strategic and creative minds. But it is also the case that it was made in-house by a team who were clearly incapable, whether through fear or indoctrination, of calling bullshit. They committed the cardinal sin of believing their own hype, which is never a good look.

In comparison, a really great client agency relationship has just the right degree of closeness and distance that allows agencies to be passionate advocates for the brand but still able to bring a healthy dose of scepticism to the table.

And perhaps that’s why us Brits are rather good at this advertising business, cynicism is one of the many things that we excel at.

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