Bring Back Those Big Ideas
As recession looms, the pressure for marketers and their agencies to pursue short-term targets becomes all the more intense. Jon Steel argues that it's time to set more ambitious objectives
In 1963, J. Walter Thompson advertising veteran James Webb Young wrote, in How to Become an Advertising Man: "The true Advertising Man... is he who has the knowledge, skills, experience and insights to advise advertisers how best to use advertising to accomplish their objectives."
The prototypical agency executive that he described was still around when I joined the business some 20 years later. He (or she, with the dawn of equality and political correctness) was an extension of the client's marketing department, a consiglieri, whose focus was on setting the right objectives, and achieving them.
"In focusing on soft measures like 'visits' and 'hits,' these clients and their agencies are really missing the point"
By the 1980s, the martinis might have disappeared from the lunch table, but effectiveness was still the order of the day. Over the past twenty years, Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt had established what the Account Planning Group later described as "disciplined systems for devising advertising strategy and producing work that will be effective in the marketplace." Agencies and clients alike believed in advertising's ability to shape and modify attitudes and behaviour. Advertising was seen as an opportunity, and the prevailing mood of the industry was one of optimism; with each new brief came a palpable sense of possibility.
But today we live in different times. With increased competition and the spectre of recession looming, we find ourselves in an era of accountability. The days of the agency consiglieri are over, replaced by an uneasy and increasingly one-sided client/supplier relationship. Pitches are decided not by client leaders, but by procurement departments. And the big, brandbuilding idea seems increasingly (and depressingly) secondary to efficiency. "Is it better to get the campaign right?" I was asked at a recent industry conference, "Or to be able to prove it?"
God, I need a martini.
Writing at the end of 2007 on the subject of what keeps American CMOs awake at night, Advertising Age highlighted two key issues: "tenure" and "ROI." It's hardly surprising that a CMO would toss and turn over these; the average tenure in that position in the USA is now less than two years, which is rather like being the manager of Newcastle United Football Club. It's a rare company that puts the faith in a CMO that Manchester United has put in Sir Alex Ferguson, or Arsenal in Arsene Wenger; newly-appointed CMOs thus tend to focus less on what they need to affect for the long-term benefit of their brands, but rather on what they can be seen to be affecting in the here and now. Their driving force is not achieving long-term success because for most the long term does not exist; instead their Holy Grail is not getting fired, or at least delaying the inevitable.
This mood, this defensive posture, is passed on directly to agencies, and thereby to the work. A study of US-based CMOs, commissioned by Adweek early in 2008, asked how many of them planned to change one or more of their agencies in the coming year. Forty-five per cent of those surveyed said they intended to fire at least one of their agencies. At the same time, the majority of CMOs said they planned to plough more resources into e-mail programs, CRM, marketing performance measuring 'dashboards' and search engine marketing.
Such redirection of resources is readily justified on the grounds of the potential of these new media for developing more personal, truly interactive relationships with a brand's target customers. But I fear that an equally powerful reason is that they also represent an opportunity for easy measurement, and easy results. And that in focusing on soft measures like 'visits' and 'hits,' these clients and their agencies are really missing the point.
I once heard a senior British police officer attempting to justify the reduction in numbers of officers on the streets. "Statistically," he said, "it's clear that since police officers have been taken away from the traditional beat, there have been more arrests."
I don't question his numbers, and what he described might well have represented success against a government promise to increase the number of arrests. But did it represent increased effectiveness in his force's activities? My personal view is that when there were more police on the streets they acted as a deterrent to crime.
The reason officers made fewer arrests is that their simple presence prevented many crimes from happening in the first place. But maybe it's harder to reliably measure crimes that might have happened but didn't.
So now the arrest figures are up and the government basks in its statistical toughness, while all around the UK many people are afraid to walk the streets of even the smallest towns at night. We are sacrificing the true objective of a safer society, in the name of accountability.
And this is where a lot of the problems start in our industry. We are simply setting the wrong objectives. As Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt once stood up to stupid, unhelpful research, so too should we stand up to the current marketing obsession with the short term.
We should be angered by the accountability mindset that means we're making more and more decisions based on what can be measured, rather than what's really important. How many companies today are setting "Big, Hairy Audacious Goals?" Certainly not many, and we are also culpable in their failure. We need to inject more ambition into our objectives.
We should fight once more for access to the data, and the place at the boardroom table that allows us to once again be true partners. Which means that clients have to learn to trust us enough to invite us in and share their secrets, and we have to work hard to develop the "knowledge, skills, experience and insights" that James Webb Young rightly asked us to employ on their behalf.
It makes me angry that we have lost that trusted position, and the rigour that once provided its foundation. I ask you to be angry too. And to do something about it.
Source: The Wire - Issue 30 - Page 11, published in October 2008