Poking sleeping giants

I am astounded by the lack of public response and debate around Hugo Powell's 'wake up' call.So, at the risk of further disturbing the slumbering giants, here are some questions and answers from someone who has also suffered excessive 'handling'.Should agencies...

I am astounded by the lack of public response and debate around Hugo Powell’s ‘wake up’ call.

So, at the risk of further disturbing the slumbering giants, here are some questions and answers from someone who has also suffered excessive ‘handling’.

Should agencies exist at all?

As a copywriter and creative director in large agencies through the ’70s and ’80s, I was certain that the guts of the agency was the creative department.

I was wrong. The media department was the guts. And as media buying services have risen, traditional agencies have declined.

Without a media department there is no reason for a client to hire a traditional agency, provided he can buy the creative directly. Witness Coca-Cola in the u.s.

But there is danger in this direction. The Coke experiment did not produce a new ‘It’s the Real Thing.’ We are seeing brilliant one-offs. But no new campaign idea.

Why is this? Why can’t a client go directly to a production house for creative? Because the business of creating great advertising ideas is difficult and subtle. It’s like baseball. It looks easy, but at the professional level it is full of subtleties.

Right now, most of the heavy-hitters on the creative side of advertising are still in the employ of traditional advertising agencies. So most clients must still deal with traditional agencies, which are badly in need of a structural and philosophical overhaul.

What business are we in?

We are in the motivation business. Not the relationship business. Not the creative business. The motivation business. We create ideas and execute communications to motivate a change in behavior.

On structure.

David Ogilvy sounded the alarm years ago when he said: ‘Too many milkers. Too few cows.’

So how about an all-cow agency? Fire the milkers. And re-educate the creative people who insist that their ideas, and only their ideas, are worthy.

In an all-cow agency everyone would contribute to both the strategic thinking and idea generation.

This would require a change in the reward system. Right now, copywriters and art directors feel they must own the idea because they are compensated for ideas. They should be rewarded for brilliant copywriting and stunning art direction. The idea could come from anyone involved in the project.

(Who decides which idea is best? The person with the best track record in creative judgment. Usually the creative director.)

The structure of an all-cow agency would then revolve around two or three cows per project. No milkers.

On trust.

Choose your creative cows carefully because sooner or later they will ask you to buy a recommendation on trust.

Millions of dollars on the line and two people who can’t even dress themselves properly ask you to trust them. What kind of business is this?

It’s a business where trust is necessary when, and only when, the creative is truly new stuff. It won’t research well because most testing techniques measure against norms. ars, for example, looks to see if your commercial is ‘like’ other commercials deemed to have succeeded. In other words, they test to prove your commercial is not original.

Why be original at all? Why not go with creative that feels comfortable because it is close to something that has worked in the past? Because imitations never work as well as originals. The many imitators of the Black Label campaign did not achieve 400% sales increases.

What an advertiser can judge, or test, is relevance. Again, Black Label provides a clear example. The initial campaign was relevant to the mindset of the target audience. Subsequent executions were not. And the campaign sputtered into oblivion.

So choose your creative cows based on past successes. Trust them based on respect for this track record. But only when you are absolutely certain that your message is relevant to the consumer.

On compensation.

An all-cow agency would work only on assigned projects. If you do a great job on the project you get another. May the best cows win.

It follows, of course, that compensation would be project-based. Like production houses. Like architects. Like lawyers.

Today’s agencies have evolved into a ‘relationship’ business. The main job is to manage the relationship with the client and to keep that client for the long term. Too often the relationship takes precedence over the project. An idea is judged as too risky for the client. Safe alternatives are produced. Half-baked ideas are presented on timelines created to emphasize service.

With project-based compensation, agency management would be forced to manage projects. Wouldn’t that be nice?

On the client side.

I’d like to see a reformation of thinking on the client side of the table as well. Let’s look at creative strategies.

The standard packaged goods strategy format was invented when television was a brand new medium. The novelty of the medium meant that an advertiser did not have to be concerned with grabbing the viewer’s attention. Or piquing interest. So a strategy format was created that assumed awareness and interest and moved straight to persuasion.

This format has become a given. Managers fill in the blanks on benefits and support points without a thought for the validity of the process. This document becomes sacrosanct. Once it has been approved upstairs, don’t even think about making changes. Are you kidding?

On commercial testing.

Those who pay the bills will always need to test the potential of a commercial before investing in air time.

Creatives (myself included) have historically, even hysterically, opposed pre-testing, saying you cannot predict the power of a smile or the impact of originality.

It’s time we got together on this. There will never be perfection but surely we can invent something other than the killers of originality that are out there now.

The creative side does not have the power to initiate this search for something that works. Clients do. And it is obviously in their best interest.

We need a methodology that can accommodate true originality and aligns more perfectly with motivation goals than purchase intent. How about an industry task force on this?

Should advertising exist at all?

Yes. The motivation business will continue.

It was gratifying at the Cassies to see that the winners were campaign ideas that, without exception, have been winners in other awards shows.

Great ideas produce great results. Pure advertising built around insight and originality works far better than any other force in a marketer’s arsenal. Look at Diet Pepsi. Look at Nike. Look at Lever 2000. Look at any of the Cassies winners.

Advertisers need advertising. Provocative, exciting stuff that can change behavior. Who will provide it remains to be seen.

Bruce McCallum is curreently the proprietor of a one-and-a-half cow creative consultancy. He was formerly a creative director at FCB/ Ronalds-Reynolds, Bozell Palmer-Bonner and Ogilvy & Mather.