Blowing the top off a dirty business — part two

As reported last issue, my marketing consultant friend John Szold recently invited me to spend an afternoon with his students at The Schulich School of Business, where John teaches brand management. ...

As reported last issue, my marketing consultant friend John Szold recently invited me to spend an afternoon with his students at The Schulich School of Business, where John teaches brand management.

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

Here, then, is Base’s Crash Course in Ad Agency Folkways – Part Two.

* Mark Smyka, a long-time reporter and writer for Marketing Magazine before becoming one of Strategy’s founders, knew and interviewed and wrote about everybody in the business worth knowing and talking to and writing about. Mark says that in the ’70s, ad agencies were captained by, well, by characters. Often highly colourful, hugely opinionated, larger-than-life egocentrics, they loomed large in the affairs of their client companies. Mark notes that even as late as the ’80s, Ontario’s premier David Peterson spoke with his main agency’s president, Bill Bremner, every day and rarely made a decision of any consequence without Bill’s counsel. But within 10 years, Mark says he watched ad agencies go from being the omnipotent and all-powerful gatekeepers of their clients’ marketing and communications efforts to being just another salesman with a briefcase full of stuff, sitting hopefully in the client’s waiting room alongside people selling printing and embossed coffee mugs and direct mail and skywriting.

* In a matter of a few years, the outgoing, outspoken breed of entrepreneurial showmen who traditionally founded and ran agencies going back to the beginnings of advertising had been replaced, at least in Canada, with anonymous, interchangeable small-company manager types, who were shuttled in and out of the country from the U.S. head office almost unnoticed. Hardly bandleaders, their skills and duties were those of management and reportage to head office, and equally well suited to the management of shoe factories and real estate offices.

* David Ogilvy, a compulsive and authoritarian writer of books containing lists of how things should and should not be done at ad agencies, managed to persuade many clients that his immutable rules, entrenched at Ogilvy & Mather, allowed talented people to do more effective work there than what they would do before coming to or after leaving his agency. The notion that a creative person would necessarily do better work at one agency than at any another was an absolutely original concept for its time. It was also undoubtedly not true.

* Ogilvy’s best and least-known epithet was, at least in my view, know the world and steal from the best. Of course, he never included it in any of his published lists because he knew it would be misconstrued.

* Advertising is information presented in a way that invites people to make decisions. At its most rudimentary, that decision may simply be that instead of never having heard of a product, one decides that one has heard of it.

And someday, one might decide to buy it.

* ‘It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop, it will take millions more for them to vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man. With his obsessing drive to service, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.’

-Bill Bernbach

* ‘It is ironic that the very thing that is most suspect by business, that intangible thing called artistry, turns out to be the most practical tool available for it. Only an original talent can vie with all the shocking news, events and violence in the world for the attention of the consumer.’ -Bill Bernbach

* The essential components of a client-agency relationship are competence and compatibility. Of the two, I suspect compatibility is more important than competence, because competence is much more difficult to prove. We tend to buy things from people we like. And people tend to buy products from companies they like, a fact not lost upon smart agencies. Mary Wells, a writer and owner of the hot ’60s agency Wells Rich & Green said If we can get them to like us, maybe they’ll buy something from us.

* Nobody knows for sure any immutable facts about brands of tires, or mouthwash, or soup or running shoes. They do, however, have impressions and feelings about them, which have often been influenced by advertising.

The fact that advertising is overwhelmingly about feelings and not facts indicates that advertising is an art and not a science.

* David Abbott, a founder of two brilliantly creative British agencies, once told me that he carefully examined the short list for any account review his firm was to participate in. If the contending agencies were all at the creative end of the ad agency spectrum, he’d make the effort to compete to win. But if his agency was the one creative shop on a list of establishment firms, he’d often decline to compete, in the belief that his firm had been put on the list to lose: We looked at one of those creative shops, but they’re not for us.

* Abbott, incidentally, was a creative guy who believed in research, because good research gives the creatives the courage to go flat out with a creative idea in the relative certainty that they are right. He had the door that led to his research department labelled Information Department, because he said that although he’d met clients who didn’t want to pay for research, he’d never met one who didn’t want information.

* Clients have the impression that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of agency people are slaving daily on their advertising plans and executions. This is not necessarily the case. Consider that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night all by himself in only a few months. How many people can spend time together writing the script for a 30-second TV commercial?

* David Ogilvy once challenged any high-priced ad writer in New York to prove they spend more than half an hour a week actually writing ads. Everyone knows, said Ogilvy, that ad writers spend most of their time in meetings.

* I have heard it said that one should pay close attention to the opinions and advice of the senior agency people you meet in any agency new-business presentation. Because once you award the agency your account, chances are you will never see them again. But you should expect a Christmas card.

* The president of Pillsbury once said he believed the dollar value of their intellectual property, The Pillsbury Doughboy, substantially exceeded the value of all the physical assets of the company, including manufacturing plants, equipment and real estate.

* Since this is frequently the case with intellectual properties, one wonders why non-shareholding, middle-ranked employees of most companies are given free-reign to change or abandon long-standing ad campaigns. If the same executive decided that the plant had to be torn down and re-built because the bricks were the wrong colour, they’d be straight-jacketed and physically removed from the building. But abandon a campaign in which 50 million has been invested? It happens every day.

* Mind you, another Ogilvy declaration is this: There are two things research cannot tell you. One is when your advertising is worn out. The other is how much to charge for your product.

* The partners who built and ran the best ad agency I’ve ever encountered had a set of rules about the kind of client they would work with. First rule, we will only work for companies who market good products, because you can’t sell bad products twice. Second rule, we will only work for smart people with whom we can have a rapport, because you can’t do good work for people who do not like and respect you. Third rule, we will only work for people who pay their bills.

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.