Blowing the top off a dirty business

This spring, my marketing consultant friend John Szold at Case Solutions invited me to spend an afternoon with his graduating class in the marketing course at The Schulich School of Business, where John teaches brand management. ...

This spring, my marketing consultant friend John Szold at Case Solutions invited me to spend an afternoon with his graduating class in the marketing course at The Schulich School of Business, where John teaches brand management.

He said the class was panting to know just what it was like to work with a real ad agency. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to put a few notes together for them, and blow the top off the whole dirty business.

Here they are, constituting Base’s Crash Course in Ad Agency Folkways, Part One.

Notes on the Origins

of Advertising, and

Client-Agency Relationships

* It is a common misconception that an ad agency is an agent of an advertiser. In fact, the original ad agency was a sales agent for the media – newspapers, in particular. The papers could reduce the costs of their sales force by paying a commission to an outside company for selling their space. Both newspapers and their agents offered to compose advertisements for the clients, and so the ad biz began.

* The primary purpose of an ad agency was defined for me many years ago as follows. Imagine a series of family farms along a country road. One day, a farmer with an oversupply of chickens and a surfeit of eggs puts out a painted sign by the road that says Eggs for Sale. Seeing this, the farmer next door who also has extra eggs, erects a sign that says Fresh Eggs for Sale. The next farmer down, not to be outdone, paints a sign that says Fresh, Extra-Large Brown Eggs for Sale. And the rest is history.

* People notice, read, watch, remember and base decisions upon things that interest and amuse them. Occasionally, one of those things is an advertisement.

* The president of what was once Canada’s largest ad agency told me that although agencies liked to think of their relationship with their clients as a partnership, this was not the way the clients saw it. The client’s partners, their wives, he said, are their accounting firms and law firms. They view their ad agencies as their mistresses. They want us to be amusing, but not too amusing. They want us to be sexy, but not too sexy. They want us to dress well, but not too well. And every so often they want to screw us.

* There was a joke, back in the ’60s, around the time I got into the ad biz. It went like this. A prospective client attends a new business presentation at the Canadian headquarters of Ogilvy & Mather. During the meeting, he glances at his watch and notices it has stopped. What time is it? he asks. The agency’s director of client services replies that Mr. Ogilvy alone knows the correct time, and he knows it more accurately and incisively than anyone else in the advertising industry. But Mr. Ogilvy is presently en route to his chateau in France, and cannot be reached for consultation until next week. ‘At the first possible opportunity, he will be contacted, and Mr. Ogilvy’s judgment concerning the correct time will be forwarded to you.’

Next day, the same prospective client attends another pitch, this time in the offices of McCann Erickson. There, he deliberately interrupts the meeting to ask the time of day. The McCann head of client services says he’ll have their in-house Research Department design a short time-related questionnaire, and once they’ve run it past 200 consumers telephoned at random, and tabulated the results, a quick top-line estimation of the correct time will be couriered to the client’s office.

A few days later, the client attends a third new business pitch, at MacLaren, Canada’s largest ad agency. Halfway through the presentation, he asks if someone could tell him what time it is. The director of client services leans towards him, smiles broadly, and offers him a small cigar, which he proceeds to light with a gold cigarette lighter, and says, What time would YOU LIKE it to be?

* At the beginning of the ’80s, I met the London-based, just-retired marketing director of Kraft Europe, who had been responsible for the development of all the company’s British and European ad campaigns for many years. He described an ad agency as the house of magic.

* At the height of the British Creative Revolution in the mid-’70s a London agency guy who’d come to work in Toronto remarked how odd it was here that agency-side people and client-side people were constantly changing places, flipping from one side of the desk to another. In London, he said, there were ad people and client-side people, and that’s where they tended to stay.

* The difference was that the role of the client-side people in the development of the advertising is to be the conscience of the company. The agency people are the conscience of the consumer. That is because the company’s perception of what is important is generally very different from the consumer’s perception of what is important. A good ad manager, as the conscience of the company, allows the agency to create advertising that engages the consumer, without compromising the essential interests of the company.

(To be continued next issue.)

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He creates this column for fun, and to test the unproven theory that clients who find the latter amusing may also find the former to their liking. Barry can be reached at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners, (416) 924-5533; fax (416) 960-5255.