Opinion The way of the future: behavior

The advertising agency business is going through a period of painful transition: what it has been, everyone knows; what it will be, no one can tell.About the only thing that seems certain at the moment is that the old conventions do...

The advertising agency business is going through a period of painful transition: what it has been, everyone knows; what it will be, no one can tell.

About the only thing that seems certain at the moment is that the old conventions do not count for much anymore, and just about anything can happen.

For those who are frightened or intimidated by this new marketing free-for-all, these are indeed troubling times. For those who have been winning victories the past few years outside the so-called mainstream, quite the opposite is true. For them, these times represent nothing but opportunity.

Clearly, one of those who hears it knocking loudly is Elliott Ettenberg, the senior partner in 16-year-old Prism Communications, one of those agencies that has been kicking at the Establishment’s doors for years. Prism gained particular attention last year when the company walked away with the entire Sears Canada account. Prism beat out two incumbents – a small, hot creative shop and a large multinational – for both creative and media assignments.

Strategy recently invited Ettenberg to discuss changes in the marketplace as he sees it. We asked: ‘Elliott, what’s going on out there?’

‘There’s a huge gap now between expectation and reality, so much so that people are prepared to break all the old rules to find answers. Clients are faced with insatiable profit objectives and a terrified, shrinking Canadian marketplace.

In order to deliver the numbers that are demanded of them, clients need to go to [an agency] resource that can think beyond a creative solution.

By `creative solution’ I mean a creative idea, the kind that still drives the bulk of the advertising agency business, whether that idea is expressed as a direct mail piece, or in-store material, or in the media.

Answers are no longer being found in those ideas, in part, because agency creative people have lost touch with the average consumer.

No relevance

In fact, the consumer has changed so radically in the last 10 years that most of the creative – which still leans so heavily on entertainment value – has very little, or no, relevance to the purchasing decision.

The `big idea’ creative has a limited place in the new changing, enlightened environment, where an empowered consumer is saying, `Just tell me where I should buy it, let me understand it really well, and let me make the decision. If you want to be interesting in the way you present that to me, that’s okay, but, above all, be relevant.’

Now, that may be a tough pill for agencies to swallow, but it isn’t for clients. They want to see the cash register move, and not in three years. They want to see it move now.

I would love to say that sometimes the big idea can work, because if I said `sometimes’ it would be more acceptable to your readers, and then they would stop labelling me as some sort of a nut.

Just say `no’

So, I’ll say `no’ and get everybody upset, because it’s easier to say `no’ and then rebuild it than to say `maybe’ and have people continue to think that it might be possible.

Here’s another way of putting it. The `old’ agency business was concerned about advertising. The `new’ agency business is concerned about behavioral change. That’s a huge difference.

And don’t get fooled by the preoccupation that agencies have today with interactive television and the information highway. They’ve tried this kind of bullshit before. They’ve tried buying research houses, then they went through acquisitions and mergers, then they bought promotional houses.

None of those things had anything to do with consumer behavior. And so none of it worked. So neither will the information highway nor any of the newfangled technology that they’re desperately struggling to incorporate into their businesses work to save them.


The real issue is that the `new’ agency works to understand why people buy a category of products and why they buy a particular brand in that category.

And that insight comes down to understanding and having a huge respect for what the consumer is doing and how she’s changing and what values are shaping her and how those values themselves are changing.

The `new’ agency is not concerned with awareness, which is what the `old’ agency was concerned with. The `new’ agency is concerned with relevance.

The `old’ agencies stopped at awareness because they were overly concerned about delivering a bright, creative idea to a bunch of product managers who were only going to be working on the business for two years, and then they were gone.

While these brand or product managers were on the watch, they wanted to be associated with bright, creative ideas that would win them a lot of attention and help build their careers.

But it didn’t work in the marketplace, because the consumer isn’t interested in bright, creative ideas. The consumer is interested in why she should be purchasing that brand instead of another brand.

Day After Recall

Instead of figuring out what might be relevant to the consumer, the `old’ agencies invented things like dar (Day After Recall) to legitimize the `Big Creative Idea.’

dars are ridiculous. They only encourage mediocrity and attract people who tend to lead agencies astray from what their basic purpose is, which is to drive their clients’ businesses.

Anyone who looks at our agency reel can see that it is packed with information.

The `old’ agency truism was that you can only sell one idea, that’s all the consumer can absorb.

The `new’ agency says give her 15 ideas, 20 reasons to buy. As many reasons as you need in a manner that she can digest.

Particularly because you’re buying a gazillion frequencies within a purchase cycle, in the `new’ way of doing things, and she’s going to see the commercial more than one time.

So give her a chance to learn every time she looks at that commercial and she’ll perhaps rethink her position and it may lead to a behavioral change – and get the cash register to ring.

If you ask those people who are really good at this business, they’ll tell you that they’re good because they keep it simple.

I remember I once asked Marlene Hore [former national creative director of J. Walter Thompson] what it takes, and she said the answer is to not become a copywriter, but to remain a housewife.


You need to get down to the simplicity of the relationship between the brand and the consumer. Once you have it, you can build upon that simplicity and construct the selling argument around that. It’s wonderful when that happens.

I hope the traditional agencies always view us as outside the mainstream. Because in case they haven’t noticed, the mainstream isn’t going to exist for a whole lot longer.

Our goal is not to be a $200-million agency. We don’t want to be a global agency, we never have. The most effective selling argument I can present is one-on-one. As I see it, the least relevant statement is one statement for the whole world.

Coke `Always’ may sound good in the boardroom and maybe caa [Creative Artists Agency] loves it, but, for me, I’m buying stock in [private label cola bottler] Cott [Beverages.]

The first strategic document that we wrote when we opened Prism was our operating philosophy. And the No. 3 objective was to change the industry.

The agency business has always had a very strange relationship with its client base. It’s always had almost a recessive relationship with advertisers. And I’ve never understood that.

Agencies as a rule don’t get a lot of respect out there, and we set out in our agency to find clients who did respect what we brought to the table.

More about consumer

I don’t pretend to know my clients’ businesses as well as they do. I never will. But I know more about their consumer than they do, because I’m constantly selling to those consumers.

In the morning I’m selling them on shopping centres, and in the afternoon I’m selling them on Sears, and then I’m selling them Iberian Airlines and Hitachi tvs and Maple Leaf Hot Dogs, and then I’m trying to sell them LePage’s glue on the weekend.

I want them to stop at a Mac’s store, at a Mike’s submarine shop. I mean, if you spend this kind of money every year talking to that one family, you get to know it pretty well.

More credible

When I sit down in my clients’ boardrooms and we start fighting – and we really do like to fight with our clients – we start fighting about those issues in which we believe we’re more credible than they are. And the only place that we are more credible is in consumer behavior.

That’s it. Nowhere else. Most of our clients understand this about us. We have a vested interest in making our view known and in building what we view as a real partnership – a partnership in the truest sense.

It’s not just a set of words. Our profitability is tied to my clients’ results. If they don’t make their numbers, neither do we. That’s partnership.

The really difficult part of the current phenomenon that we’ve come to know as `agency re-engineering’ is the infrastructural change and the value change that the agency industry has yet to go through.

We’re lucky [at Prism.] We started with this whole concept back when there were no egos [at the agency.] There was just a desire to be different and to find a new way of doing it.

So, we built psychographics into everything we did, and we’ve been doing it now for 15 years. We have never created a demographic campaign. We have never bought demographically. We, I think, were instrumental in getting the psychographic concept established at pmb [Print Measurement Bureau.]

Victims of experience

There are some very bright people in our business who are victims of their own experience, who are caged by their own realities. You’d be shocked how many times I sit down and have some really blunt conversations with some really bright people in our business.

It’s not at all surprising to me that a lot of people are leaving the established agencies to try to be different and to be on their own, and to find a way to express their particular talent and have that talent acknowledged.

But talking about being an `agent of change,’ and being an `agent of change’ are two totally different issues. And you can’t be an `agent of change’ when you’re dragging a whole operating philosophy that has nothing to do with relevant change, and is practised on a lowest common denominator worldwide basis.

So, yes, there are a lot of people out there who have figured it out. But, no, there are not many of them in a position to do anything about it for some time yet.’