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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Adventures In Advertising: The Primary Reason Why Clients Dumb Down Agency Work


I was thinking about all the bad work that I see on television, in magazines and online.  There is a plethora of work that all of us want to know how it could have possible gotten presented, approved and produced.  Gone are the days of the creative superstars who knew how to create, sell and produce excellent advertising.  They could attract clients who wanted good work, who approved it and let it run.  It would appear that there are now too many clients who are now afraid to approve new ideas, new campaigns and breakthrough work.

When I was in advertising I had a client reject work he actually liked.  I thought I would write about it to provide an insight as to how and why companies almost insist on bad work.  In this case it was because the client was afraid to approve it.  Here’s why.

I was an account supervisor on a major account.  The client encouraged us to do breakthrough work.  But when it was presented, he wouldn’t buy it.  

We had a great, friendly relationship.  So much so that he was always honest with me and took me into his confidence.  Here is what he said after he saw the recommended new work.  “I would love to do this kind of work.  It is really breakthrough.  It is interesting, on target and it is excellent.  But I cannot allow it to go through.”  I told him that what he just said made no sense.  His response was profound and has always stayed with me.

“What we currently run is boring.  But it is what my management is used to.  In fact, it is similar to everything in the entire industry.  If we ran something else, it might actually be far more effective.  But what if it isn’t?  I cannot take the chance.  If we run a new campaign and it fails, I will lose my job for recommending it or approving it.  But if I run the kind of work we have been running, my management and my board will not complain. In fact they will not even notice it because it is what they know and are used to.  I cannot take the chance that new work will fail.  I want to keep my job.”

And there it is.  It is the reason why we see so much bad work.  Clients are simply afraid.  Most are unwilling to be responsible for making significant changes.  

No is always easier and safer than yes.  That is why copy testing was invented – it took the onus off of any individual for approving work and it resulted in homogenized creative.

Because approving new creative work is more difficult than rejecting it, the people in the presentation chain ask for too many changes. It is true of the chairman or president who is afraid of his/her board of directors. It is also true of the new marketing director who recommends a new agency with people who he/she knows and is comfortable with.  The known is always safer than the unknown.  It takes bravery to approve new work.  

I suspect that is why some bad work just goes on and on.  Flo and Progressive ran its course many years ago.  So did some of the Geico work.  And don’t get me started on most of the DTC pharma stuff that keeps going and going and going. 

Clients have forgotten David Ogilvy’s sage advice (to paraphrase):  Hire an agency and listen to them.  If their advertising fails, hire another agency.  Now this may be simplistic advice for this complicated day and age – Mr. Ogilvy wrote it in his first book which was published more than fifty-five years ago, but honestly, it is great guidance.  The best story I know is when the Energizer Bunny started running and there was research conducted (probably a tracking study) which showed that there was a tremendous amount of brand confusion.  But Chiat\Day insisted that the client continue the campaign, despite the threat of losing the business.  And, to their credit, the client listened.  That was about twenty five years ago and the campaign is still running.

Too much good work goes by the wayside because clients are afraid to approve it or make so many changes that what ends up is barely recognizable.


But then again, the late, great Ned Viseltear always said: “If you don’t do bad work, bad work can’t get done.”
 

20 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. What do you mean by “dumb down”? That assumes that the agency “work” presented was good or great to begin with, which is not always the case. And even if it were, clients get nervous about breaking the traditional and accepted company mold because that puts THEM (aka, their job) at risk. The solution is for more agencies to have truly “Big Ideas” and for more clients to recognize one when they see it – not to mention the balls to run it.

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    1. That is exactly what I wrote. And as for your "dumb down" comment, so much good work that is presented by agencies is rejected because clients are afraid to deviate from their previous norms.

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  3. Paul, yes there are clients who kill good ideas, but there are also agencies who hector clients into buying bad ones. My take on why there are so many bad ads today:

    1)Most ads always were bad - good ones are the exception.

    2) Budgets have gotten smaller and so has the quality.

    3) Some once-great campaigns are victims of their own success (e.g. Geico, which jumped the shark years ago, and now reruns the older, funnier work).

    4)Some bad stuff actually works, like the intelligence-insulting magazine direct mail featuring a "Do Not Bend" teaser line;or the supercilious startup founders who narrate nearly identical radio spots for their "disruptive" socks, underwear or bed-sheet brands.

    5) Much of it - especially on social media - is now done by amateurs in house. So in this case we can definitely blame the clients!

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  4. RE: #4 - The supercilious business owner concept was made famous by Victor Kiam/Remington electric razors who said: "I was so impressed, I bought the company."

    But at least dear Victor said that with a chuckle. Today's crop of product pitchmen and women is so self-absorbed, they do not realize how much arrogance they project.

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    1. Thanks, Peter. I actually agree with you. There is a lot of bad work done by agencies who don't know better - but a lot of that bad work is made worse by clients who make changes which often make no sense.

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  5. Paul....interesting story about the Energizer Bunny. I remember explaining my dislike for the campaign a year or so after it ran to a Creative Director I was working with at the time. He had just left Chiat/Day and told me "I was nuts...this will be one of the best campaigns of our era". I laughed at him and now he is laughing at me!

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  6. It's the Energizer bunny. Does it alter the effectiveness argument if you recall another brand when thinking about the work?

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    1. Adam, not sure what your question is. Happy to answer if I understood. When called the Energizer Bunny, it is hard to think of another brand. Now twenty five years later, when talking about the Bunny, it is difficult to think of another battery brand.

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    2. Thanks, Paul. You called it the Everready bunny in your post. My point is that it is a commodity idea that happened to catch on. It could just as easily have been the Everready (or Duracell) bunny. Those are like winning lottery tickets. Asking a client to sign off on a lottery ticket and calling them scared if they don't, which a lot of agencies do, is not exactly fair. Show me a creative idea that is rooted in customer insight and uniquely, inextricably connected to my brand/product and I will fight for it every time, even at the expense of my job. But it hasn't cost me a job yet because good CEO's can recognize approaches that are authentic to their brand and customers even if the execution makes them nervous.

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    3. Thanks. I corrected it and I am embarrassed.

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    4. Sorry, that was not my intention. As someone with leadership experience on both sides of the fence, I think it's a really important conversation, especially as we try to inspire the next generation of marketers. I encourage bold ideas and I believe in the "magic" of advertising. It just takes a lot more work than many industry professionals seem willing to put in to create communications that are breakthrough, authentic, and effective all at the same time. Please feel free to delete my posts. I would but I don't have edit rights.

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    5. I don't mind at all. I am a big boy :-). No reason to delete your comments because you are saying something important: The industry must get out of it's own way and be brave enough both to do great work and encourage (and fight for) clients to buy it.

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  8. Hi Paul, has been eons . . . so nice to to read your thoughtful posts after all these years . . . wanted to comment on what I see as a huge obstacle to fresh thinking, mostly amongst amateurs for sure, but still, largely perpetuated by digital culture. I was horrified the first time I ran into it about 10 or so years ago, and have only seen the phenomenon worsen, and that is a serious attachment to looking at the market, seeing what works for others, and simply copying it. I almost couldn't believe it the first time I heard someone ask for this, since it's actually the antithesis of what it takes to make great work. I don't understand what's driving it truly, other than what you point out about fear on both agency and client sides. I see such huge opportunity for the exact opposite, fresher thinking than we ever had before with all the analytics and insights we can now mine. "Data is the new Creative" is so true imho, it should drive breakthrough, not copycat work! I think that's our battle cry for 2019.
    Best,
    Susan

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  9. I retired to San Diego 12 years ago. Like any smaller city, much TV advertising is local and retail. And like any arrogant, self-respecting, big time NY ad guy I was initially appalled at the “crap” I saw on TV. I even wrote about in the local paper. One response: I was judging SD as if it were NY, and “who did I think I was?” Tells you what you need to know about the local mentality.

    Yet, over time I came to see the value in the “crap” I watched on TV. Sure there were many campaigns staring the owners of their businesses: commercials that were kitschy, cheaply produced, or just plain stupid. But they worked, if their longevity reflects their success. Or, if persuasively, they reflected the beliefs of their intended audience, which is the only thing a good piece of advertising needs to do.

    If Coca-Cola wants to spend millions producing commercials that’s their business, and part of the fun of working on the account. Trips to LA! But in reality, any good idea will do at any level of production and distribution. Because, like I said, a good idea is one that reflects what its audience believes. That’s how persuasion works, no matter how much you spend for the Creative Director’s room at Shutters.

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    1. Good point, Bob. There's lots of good but insane local advertising. If you're from New York, surely you remember Crazy Eddie and Tom Carvel, both of which worked very well even if annoying. What I was speaking about was mostly the work from Big agencies which attract big, scared clients who are afraid to make good decisions because it's easier to make bad ones.

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