Ornaments or instruments?

Brighton Pavillion, described by Lady Sydney Morgan as a 'toyshop of royal bad taste' and like most advertising pretty but useless.

Advertising's ills are many, manifest and increasingly well documented. Many people out there blame the inflexibilty and self interest of the agencies (and I post extensively on this) but how about the clients? I have become increasingly concerned that the greatest threat to advertising is the way clients use it - not as a business tool but as a corporate bauble.

"Good ideas start with the realisation of a problem to solve. But much mediocre brand marketing starts with the idea of 'advertising the brand' as if it were a business objective in its own right" John Grant, The Brand Innovation Manifesto.

One of the things that you hear most often from people that have gone client side is the relative unimportance of advertising in their working day given the many areas of responsibility of the modern marketer. I used to feel chastened by this, accepting that on the agency side we spend every waking moment thinking about stuff real people pay very little attention to and Marketing Directors are clearly not as interested in as they used to be. C'est la vie.

But of late I have started to become angry about this state of affairs - if Marketing Directors are not spending vast parts of their day thinking about their advertising something is wrong. This remains an astonishingly powerful business tool that in the right hands has the power to transform brands and sell serious amounts of product over both the short and long term. That sounds like something that should be of paramount concern.

I think a number of things have gone wrong on the client side of the equation:

1) Too many contemporary marketers are unskilled in acquiring the right advertising for their business. They understand (usually) the business problem at hand but are not clear how advertising can and should solve that problem. You can see this in the way that so many client briefs still contain the phrases 'raise awareness' or 'gain reappraisal'?

2) They have lost faith (if they ever had it) in the power of advertising to sell - having been fed a diet of bullshit, poor solutions and unedifying results from their agencies for years.

3) They are too interested in the intermediate measurement of their advertising and not enough interested in real results. I have lost count of the times I have asked client friends how their advertising is going and been told 'it is tracking really well'.

4) They want their advertising to be liked more than they want it to sell and are more interested in the part of the creative development research debrief concerned with appeal than the one marked 'will anybody care and will the work do its job'. The current 'engagement' debate, which is seen by many clinets and agencies as an excuse to entertain rather than sell, merely serves to pour fuel on this particular fire.

5) They want it to go down well with internal stakeholders more than with consumers. Sure we have all heard about the way in which 'Every Little Helps' worked as a staff training programme or the sense of pride Halifax staff feel at their Howard campaign. However, lets have a little discipline for a moment, above the line advertising uses precious budget to communicate with consumers and that is how it should be judged.

6) Because they often grew up in an era when 'lifestyle' and 'image' advertising was working to build fame for certain brands they believe in using advertising to manipulate brand image rather than deliver brand substance.

7) Ironically for people who claim to have little time for advertising so busy are they with the other concerns of the job, too many don't seem to get that marketing is part communication and part getting the product right. Advertising can paper over the cracks of a poorly performing product (goodness knows we did this very succesfully for Pot Noodle until recently) but in the end advertising works best to amplify brilliant products and brands commited to innovation.

The result this woolley thinking is a sort of retreat of reason, one in which advertising is believed to have only long term 'brand building effects', one in which it's role is seen purely as a 'window on the brand', and one in which it is becomes an ornamental part of the business and not an instrumental one. A kind of 'trophy wife' for the brand.

In this world advertising becomes nice to have decoration for the brand - almost an annual report to the consumer about how it is getting on - not a hard nosed tool for indirect selling.

No wonder markets still crucify organisations that significantly increase their adspend (and yes I am going to make my tired old point about how useless the IPA effectiveness awards have been once again) and no wonder clients retreat from engaging with their advertising and leave it to a monthly trip to Hoxton to polish another pointless corporate bauble.


Here Here! From a multinational perspective I'd like to add that advertising has collectively committed fratricide, by piecemeal compromising and kowtowing to clients, in pursuit of short term profits that have correspondingly diminished as clients learned to play us off on our evaporating principles.

Maybe this has led to clients who grasp so little, administer so aggressively and fail so miserably to make anything other than arbitrary objectives for their advertising.

In short agency people who sing anthems of praise about their clients are in the minority and I for one await the new relationship model both externally and internally with eagerness. We have only ourselves to blame.

Vive L'Internet!

Posted by: Charles Edward Frith at August 15, 2006 01:45 PM

I think 4 is very interesting. There seems to be a misconception among agencies that all entertaining ads sell. They don't.

I love entertaining ads, but if they dont do what they are supposed to whats the point?

6 seems a big problem with large companies. Look at the Coke Zero debacle. Its all about brand manipulation instead of brand substance.

1 is a difficult one to deal with. Half of the point of paying for a good agency is that they
are good at findingand analysing the problem. But I wonder how many ads would be much more effective if the clients understood the problems before they passed it on.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 15, 2006 02:17 PM

Point by point my (slighlty rushed client) reaction is;

1. To some extent this is true.

2. Depends. But I just don't buy it. This is often the largest part of their budget. The idea that they can justify wasting it on something they don't believe in just seems nonsensical to me, and not in keeping in with the views I come across when I speak to fellow clients.

3. This is often used as a proxy measure when 'real' results and objectives are not being met. Arse covering if you will. But it doesn't mean these 'real' objectives didn't exist in the first place, but simply that they might not have been met.

4. Simply untrue in my experience.

5. Of course it can be important to have internal belief in the work, but at the expense of the consumer? I don't see many companies pre-testing work and spending thousands of pounds with internal stakeholders.

6. In some instances I think this is true. But I reckon you over state the distinction between the two that a client would make. I’d question whether they would in fact make a distinction between the two at all.

7. Quite the opposite. If anything I reckon there is too much belief in the power of advertising to, as you say, ‘paper over the cracks’. It's seen as a magic pill, the alternative to getting the product right.

Once again my perspective might not be a fair representation of the whole, but if I was to treat advertising as a 'bauble', I would find that bauble (and my job) declining year on year. Successful organisations simply can't afford for that to happen.

Modern econometrics allows a greater understanding of the real value of the brand equity our spend delivers, in both the long and the short run, clients want to know how much of every pound they spend they get back, and when; not just whether Claire in Sales likes the ads.

Hope this is clear, bit busy measuring the excellent effects of our recent campaign.

Posted by: Paul H. Colman at August 15, 2006 04:14 PM

Good thread. Just as applicable to non-advertising strategies I would have thought, but to stay on topic...

To Richard's point 5. I got quite a long way with a client last year towards a campaign which would use Discovery channel style downloadable documentaries to re-interest people (mostly middle class men) in the workings and innovations and hence technological leadership and superior products of a major energy company. Subjects varied from life on an Alaskan rig, to the quest for Mars. We got the chance to present this because the ad agency was stuck. They then got unstuck (ish). And it was just so much easier for the marketing director to present and sell what was undoubtedly in my mind an expensive and totally pointless "bauble". So that's what they did.

I have seen this three or four times in other contexts. The board of directors usually make the world's worst focus group, for sure. They will always buy the script with most entertainment. Same reason a government minister once preferred that ineffectual John Cleese anti-smoking campaign, despite evidence from about 37 research groups the St Lukes' harrowing psychological alternative campaign would do far more to actually help people pack up for real.

Advertising as practised by the hard of thinking majority may not sell a company's products, but it sure does sell itself.

Posted by: John Grant at August 15, 2006 04:47 PM


As ever in this forum I am taking a deliberately extreme position to make a point. And it is totally unfair to lump 'clients' together as I do - as in any community there are brilliant people are dullards and unsuprisingly I consider you in the former group.

Nevertheless time and time again I see marketers who know what the problem is but do not understand how advertising should answer it being seduced by agency product that simply is not up to the job. And I stand by my contention that likeability - both by client organisations and consumers seems to assume paramount importance in selecting the advertising to run.

Posted by: Richard at August 15, 2006 05:48 PM


I had a feeling we might see eye to eye on this one - your hidden quote about 'advertising the brand' got me going on this thread.

Part of the problem (ohh look at me being all topical) is the scourge of the brand consultancy - their remorseless anti-commericalism leads to strategies that are more corporate wishful thinking than effective answers to their problems and results in 'window on the brand' advertising.

Posted by: Richard at August 15, 2006 05:54 PM

I understand and certainly think it's an important question.

However, I think it's really easy to reel off anecdotes about the time 'we had really great work, but the client chose the sh*t stuff'. Aren't agencies just using their own version of ' likeability ' when they give these examples? How do they know which work was better?

Final question Richard: what importance, if any, would you put on likeability?

I ask because it sounds like you're advocating taking the initial human reaction to work out of the equation...

Posted by: Paul H. Colman at August 16, 2006 08:50 AM

I am certainly not advocating disagreeable work (unless making people feel uncomfortable is a deliberate strategy) but merely concerned (as I have been for a decade since leaving AMV) that likeability is prioritised by agencies and clients alike over sellability.

Likeability is important but it must be secondary because unless we think this way we fall in to the trap of the "like my advertising, like my brand" approach. This is a very passive and I would argue inefficient approach to using up your advertising budget.

The work we did for Tango and Pot Noodle had appeal (to the tight audience around which it is built) but first and foremost it was built to sell.

Finally I don't think I have reeled off any anecdotes (easy or not) about the time when 'we had really great work and the client blew it out'. I am highly critical of the agenda of most ad agencies - but for once, just for once I thought I'd point the finger at the buyers of advertising and ask them to take some of the responsibility for the state we are all in.

Posted by: Richard at August 16, 2006 09:15 AM

From outside the industry it does feel very much like ad work is in a widening duopoly. The good is getting better and the poor is getting worse.

I can't see how the gap could be that wide unless it is (at least in part) down to a lack of client understanding. I know some agencies produce rubbish, but the gap in quality in the output of the same agencies is visible on many occasions.

This has been a really interesting topic to look in on, especially with someone who would be considered "a good client" adding their views. Thanks. :)

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 16, 2006 09:38 AM

Crediblity and consistency.

Professional services offer advice and consultancy within certain parameters that are consistent across the industry. Unfortunately advertising agencies change their propositions and positionings more times than Carol Jacksons undergarments. One minute we create sales, one minute we change cultures....what is a client buying in to? How are they supposed to benchmark?

What are we; Messiahs or Scientists?

Are we selling a leap of faith or do we offer a tried and tested forumala that is proven? Perhaps if we acknowledged our own contribution to business, clients might take our advice for it's true worth without personal prejudice or debate. Afterall, I doubt they challenge their car mechanic.

Posted by: MM at August 16, 2006 10:28 AM

2 things;

1. Sorry Richard I wasn't clear - I didn't mean to suggest you had 'reeled off anecdotes', merely that I hear them a lot.

2. I'm not an especially smart operator. I just constantly ask myself in all meetings 'why are we here? And,why are these people listening to me', I find that tends to keep my feet on the ground, and the work honest.

Posted by: Paul H. Colman at August 16, 2006 10:35 AM

I believe that, in the words of David Ogilvy, we sell or else. Advertising is about indirect selling using the power of creative persuasion. Direct sales being face to face. we do that depends on the task at hand. We may beguile, convince, reward, entertain, engage, impress, promise, thank - all these are simply techniques for in-direct selling.

The skill is to understand the problem and then rigourously decide the way advertising will help solve it.

Posted by: Richard at August 16, 2006 10:39 AM

I think thats an interesting point MM. If the message and the information being put out by agencies is always changing; its not surprising that clients can often struggle to understand it properly.

"Oh dear, you've broken your branding there love. I think we are going to have replace your strategy. *intake of breath* Its not cheap though love, its gonna be about £20 million if I decide to do it now...which I wont."

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 16, 2006 10:40 AM


I think another issue is that people often forget that advertising with other aims still has the target of creating sales.

When you make advertising for "awareness", the idea is still to eventually get sales; even if (as you say Richard) the selling is in-direct.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 16, 2006 10:42 AM

Exactly Rob (I still don't don't how you know all this by the way).

There is a The The lyric that criticises the religious for worshiping the message and forgetting the creed (we don't need to think for very long to find examples of that do we children).

Well I think the same thing is happening in marketing. We obsess about the techniques for selling and forget that they are actually supposed to sell.

How many people either in agencies of client organisations understand what a brand is and why its important to the business, why creative ideas are a good idea, why we combine visual and verbal communication together, why metaphors can work, why likeability might be important etc. etc. etc. They just do this stuff because they have been told it is a good idea not because they understand it.

They worship the messge but have forgotten the creed.

Posted by: Richard at August 16, 2006 12:30 PM


Its the rise of people using the word 'branding' as if it matters more than sales; or that any branding will magiccally bring sales.

All through university you hear about branding branding branding and more branding. Its not surprising people end up as clients or in agencies expecting branding to save them all!

I'm not sure how I know this either, just observations on ads/ad people and so forth I guess!

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 16, 2006 03:28 PM

We must be the only industry that lacks consensus, cohesion and consistency in our process, systems and approaches to solving a client problem.

Imagine (since I've already mentioned it) a car mechanic debating with his colleagues, over a blog, the virutes, pro's and cons of a spanner Vs monkey wrench in the removal of an engine part.

Posted by: MM at August 16, 2006 04:33 PM

Great thread, and as wise as ever.

I have to agree that the analysis that builds the strategy is all too often missing; and on reflection how easy is it?

I've always held that any communications strategy should start with a client's business objective and an analysis of the issue (problem) that is stopping them from achieving it.

From there it is the planners task to divine an insight that helps communications to unlock the issue... and from here agency and client should jointly agree an objective or challenge for communications ... this has to be actionable, measurable and above all abitious! And it has to be signed off by both parties

Nice, simple and transparent.

From this point the brief is written.

And I know it’s an over simplification, and I know it sounds so much easier than it is.

But how many bother with this, the unpleasant end of strategy?

Without it we spend our time and emotion fighting for the execution –don’t we?- without considering what the execution is designed to achieve.

The other thing that occurs to me (once again!) is that agencies have to better prepared to address HOW their idea will meet the challenge, how it leverages the insight, how it unlocks the isse: how it works or might work… rather than ‘what a nice idea it is’.

And how many really are?

Is this just an ad agency problem? Perhaps seeing as their effectiveness is more indirect (I agree massively with the point about ‘it’s tracking well’) but the dirth of analysis is just as great a problem with other disciplines, as it is with clients. And I believe that it is –ironically- the biggest problem we have with consultancies.

Maybe the problem is we are so versed in the ‘brand brand brand’ debate (as one writer mentioned) that we just assume everything else is in order and jump on half way.

Sorry Richard point no. 4 is bollocks.

Posted by: jemster at August 16, 2006 05:54 PM

As to point 4 (contentious it seems..)
While I doubt agencies actually think that way, its certainly how a lot of ads and agencies appear to the outside world.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 16, 2006 06:27 PM

Hmmm looks like point 4 is toast.

Before I order a humiliating retreat on this likeability issue i'll have one last contrary stab.

Its all the fault of research agencies.
They don't really understand advertising or the way it works. Not the qual ones anyhow - at least Millward Brown and Hall and partners have taken the time to think about this. And they certainly have no responsibility for their actions. If they did they would have a payment on results element to their fee - if they are right they get all the cash, if not only half. And above all they hate being stuck in a research groups with consumers not 'liking' the work. It makes them feel uncomfortable. So they obsess about the work being liked and this dominates the debrief. Most research recommendations relate to the work being palatable not profitable.

Can Point 4 stay?

Posted by: richard at August 16, 2006 07:05 PM

I'll concede to point 4, seeing as you put it that way, few research agencies evaluate work against the strategy (even though they say they do) and so default to poeple 'liking the idea'. It shouldn't be so, and I honestly think that agencies don't set out to be that way.... although I'm not certain.

However likeablity is important unless you deliberately set out to irritate. I think your point about not advocating disagreable work is right.

... I'd still vote to evict.

Posted by: jemster at August 16, 2006 07:19 PM

Rob re:point 4.

Richard was saying this is how clients thought... not agencies. Some agencies might feel this way, but I haven't met many clients that do.

Posted by: jemster at August 16, 2006 07:23 PM

It reminds of the story about the Office in audience testing, it got the second lowest ever score apparently. Second only to womens bowls.

If it was an ad with point 4 in tow it would have been cancelled...
Re: The agency/client distinction for 4.
I still believe from my external (sadly!) view that its wrong to blame just one side for bad ads. The whole point in the client/agency relationship is to make things work and to communicate why certain idea and aims are worthwhile. If a client is thinking that way, then surely it MUST be down to the agency to make them understand better.

Of course some people are just too stubbon to accept, but more fool them... :)

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 16, 2006 09:14 PM

there I'd have to agree, many are too weak willed to take the road less travelled.

Interesting that Massimo Costa in campaign today writes that the biggest problem the industry has is a weak backbone.

Posted by: jemster at August 17, 2006 10:20 AM

I think point 4 has validity and should stay. I've certainly come across clients who think liking sells and their overall feedback has been based on 'liking' not selling.

Perfect example, Goodyear 4 - 6 years ago (can't remember) developed ads that looked great, they liked them - everyone liked them, even the focus groups loved them....but it did nothing for tyres! Apparently it boosted the number of travellers to Argentina though.

Posted by: MM at August 17, 2006 10:39 AM

With apologies to MM… Anecdotal evidence isn't.

The campaign sold tyres by the shedloads (they are sold out of sheds) and helped Goodyear to move to challenge Michelin as no.1 in the european market.

The ads were benefit-driven, the tyres were low-resistance (odd given tyres are about grip?) giving more mileage and better for the environment, hence the rainforest and the line which was something like ‘travel further’ (?).

It didn't work well in the UK, where the environment (at the time) was not thought to be a big issue and where the local client was unprepared to invest in TV. And this (I guess) is where the anecdote about the research came from ... it did nothing for Argentina, the ads were filmed by Baz Lehrman in Brazil. The campaign ended as real innovation (run-flat) took over.

I know the client would be pleased to hear that people liked his ads, but if that is all that had happened he would have lost his job. Maybe he did, the business came up for pitch last year. I can't recall who won.

I’m sorry if I sound like a pedant, I like the stories of great campaigns that didn't work as much as anyone. It works both ways. I hear outrageous claims of success (Sony balls), even better claims of failure, and it seems the bigger the ad, the bigger the legend. Often the anecdote seems more powerful than the facts.

Perhaps we could talk Richard into running a thread on great advertising myths and reality? I’d love to hear about Honda for example; we all want to believe it was/is a huge success, and if that is so, and backed by evidence, why is the campaign under scrutiny?

Or is it?

Posted by: jemster at August 17, 2006 11:40 AM

By the way I bow to pressure on point 4.

Ogilvy was right and I have always assumed clients agreed. If clients have got into this way of thinking, perhaps it's our fault not theirs.

Posted by: jemster at August 17, 2006 11:45 AM

Well, I've read/heard that apparently the initial Honda campaign (up to Grr) succeeded in one of its main aims, which was to reduce the average age of Honda buyers. Therefore id assume that meant increased sales to younger people.

What it's done since i'm not sure...

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 17, 2006 01:03 PM

I like the idea of calling campaigns to account. We would put up a campaign we love and want to know worked and call it to account. the Client, agency or interested party then tells us how well it worked, or didn't. We would regard silence as an admission of guilt.

Posted by: Richard at August 17, 2006 01:20 PM

fantastic... just think how many people that could p*ss off. For that reason alone it has to happen

Posted by: jemster at August 17, 2006 02:14 PM

I think he did loose his job.

I stand corrected - but most markets across Europe were loathed to invest in a campaign that they liked as entertainment but failed to take on board the insight surrounding the purchase or tyres.

A young couple driving in a brown volvo (?) without a care exploring the world, free-spirited, adventurous, a voyage of discovery, oh, but firstly, they popped into the local tyre shed to fit a sensible pair of tyres (expensive ones as well!)

As for sales uplift, I understand that huge sums of money were invested in local initiatives and more importantly promotional incentives.

I love the Jones and Jury idea uncovering the truth behind ads.

Posted by: mm at August 17, 2006 03:23 PM

What am I going to call it?

Posted by: Richard at August 17, 2006 04:26 PM

The Adcountant?

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 17, 2006 04:48 PM

Jones and Jury

Themis Files

Have you got the JuJu?

Posted by: MM at August 17, 2006 04:51 PM

I recently posted on 'the honda effect', rather lilyliveredly suggesting it might have had its day in the sun. (I actually ended up being more positive about the campaign than intended, because I'd been a bit of an old grouch on my blog lately.)

If I'd had more balls I would have carried on to wonder how much longer the love affair will last without its tone starting to cloy. I think it's happening to me already. Which I hate saying - I loved it as much as the next person for a long time. As much for what it did for planning as anything else. But I think the time for this particular kind of optimism could well be up.

That's my stab at why it's under scrutiny. I can't back any of this up with even a shred of data.

Posted by: rebecca n at August 17, 2006 05:21 PM


with or without the devil

Posted by: jemster at August 18, 2006 09:37 AM

Advocate it is - the idea is to share the success of work we really like and want to believe worked.

Posted by: Richard at August 18, 2006 11:12 AM

Can I nominate Cillit Bang as the first to face the Advocate? Isn't Barry Scott fantastic?

Posted by: Patrick at August 18, 2006 05:44 PM

The best form of parody is one that works both as a parody, but also as an example of what it is parodying. Barry Scott does that.

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at August 18, 2006 07:45 PM