Ads reveal mixed motives

OpinionThe following was submitted as a reaction to the agency out-of-home self-promotion campaigns that made up Strategy's Special Report in the Aug. 10 issue.What better remedy for adland's shrinking share of the marketing mix than a dose of its own medicine...


The following was submitted as a reaction to the agency out-of-home self-promotion campaigns that made up Strategy’s Special Report in the Aug. 10 issue.

What better remedy for adland’s shrinking share of the marketing mix than a dose of its own medicine – some high potency self-promotion?

With no client to get in the way, agency self-promotion should be the best of everything promised in new business pitches: a model of strategic precision and unfettered creativity.


These expectations are not uniformly fulfilled. Like a clinical stress test, the exercise of self-promotion recently displayed in these pages reveals a murmur at the heart of advertising.

It is a confusion about what agencies promote when they promote themselves.

Are agencies in the business of selling ads, with success tallied on the bottom line? Are they engaged in the art of creating ad masterpieces, with success recognized in originality and awards? Or, are agencies in the profession of providing marketing solutions, with success turning on results and client satisfaction?

Speak for themselves

For many, the best self-promotion is letting ads speak for themselves. However, ads are designed to speak for their products. As a rule, they are mum on results. And mum on client relations, such as those troubling on-time, on-budget issues uppermost in clients’ minds.

All that ads can tell about themselves is the creativity of their authors. If ads are left alone to speak, this tells us that the agency holds creativity to be the central issue.

This theme is echoed in many agency self-promos demonstrating considerable cleverness and creative endowment.

Are self-promos which are self-centred (not client-centred) strategically sound? Well, they can conjure up a client’s worst fear – an agency hung up on how hot it is.

On the other hand, creativity may succeed on its own merits. If an agency’s creativity hooks it a client, is not that results enough?

It is, if agencies are in the business of selling ads. Of course, no agency would ever sell a client something the client did not want or need, would it?

Fine line

There is a fine line between being conned and being convinced. A cynic might observe, ‘What matter, as long as it sells?’ And, if clients can buy an agency’s ads to con consumers into buying, is not that a job well-done?

Conning has its price. Consumers are fed up with those who use the creative power of advertising to sell them a bill of goods. They are voting with their channel-changers. And wallets.

Detroit coasted too long on a creativity insufficiently backed by product quality. To keep the trust, agencies owe clients and consumers truth in advertising.

There is an arena in which creativity and originality are pre-eminent. That is art. Some rightly say (out of client earshot) that advertising is a vital art.

Like Renaissance frescos, advertising communicates and shapes the values and concerns of our age. Ads such as ‘We Try Harder,’ ‘Just Do It,’ and ‘Ring Around the Collar’ do it greatly.

Clients may find great reward in being patrons of the advertising arts; connoisseurs, great pleasure in the artful genre of self-promotion.

If advertising professionals, like physicians, deal in the wellness of their clients, then it is an agency’s mission to diagnose problems, prescribe strategy and administer creative, creative which may not include ads at all.


The object of self-promotion then lies in revealing the inner workings of this three-fold process, and the agency’s mastery of them. Plus, successful self-promotion should demonstrate how the agency is different from its competition.

Many agencies rest their case for difference on the quality of creative. But all agencies claim superb creative. The parity trap snaps shut.

Oddly, few market themselves by developing structural, strategic differences and then promoting these as they would counsel their own clients to do. taxi, with its by-the-meter billing, is one which comes to mind.


To be sure, given the ad industry’s battering, and the changing landscape of media and markets, agency brass are rethinking the business they are in and how they market themselves.

However, the objectivity so vital to helping clients is unavailable when agencies promote themselves. Perhaps ad people, like lawyers, should hire other agencies to represent them. If nothing else, it might make for some interesting campaigns – and criticism.

Harry H. Cornelius is a Toronto-based marketing strategist and copywriter. Cornelius has spent more than a decade client-side in senior marketing and operations positions for local and international concerns.