What the Fuck do clients know about great advertising?

“Is it me or are there loads of shit ads out there at the moment?”

The words of my friend Chris last week at my birthday curry. He’s your typical bloke — Sun on Sunday, Jaguar with Corinthian leather seats, loves a pint and watches X-Factor. He loves ads — he reels off his favourites with the sing-song voice and gusto of a market trader selling you an extra bowl of mangoes that you really didn’t want — “Monk-ay” he Northerns, “Follow the Bear”, he doths an imaginary hat, “he’s got an ‘ology’ he shrugs. He even gives me the van-full-of-builders rendition of ‘We hope it’s chips it’s chips” as someone chimes in ‘Fried onion rings’ from the restaurant kitchen. I can’t believe for one minute that these very same conversations aren’t happening around the table at O’Blarney’s in Brooklyn where they lament the demise of the great American ‘Madvertising’ of the 60s or indeed, at the BierKellers of Berlin or the RSLs in Sydney.

“You’re in the game incha mate. What the fuck happened”

And I sat there amongst the party hats, cracked poppadoms and chutneys trying to work out what HAD happened. Wasn’t there a time when Advertising would look this type of disdain squarely in the face and, Maximus Decimus style, shout ‘Are you not ENTERTAINED’ to the non-believers who were hoovering up oven chips, cheap booze and tea bags. There was no internal dialogue, no soul searching, no remorse — advertising was once unstoppable. A crazy, everyday art form that squished its powdered nose into our lives through a Sony Trinitron in the corner of the room or swaggered through the letterbox on a Sunday morning, pushing aside breakfast plates and cereal as people made room for the glossies and the supplements. It belched through lunch and didn’t say pardon. It pushed hats off policemen, wore monocles to meetings and lost it’s car for days on end. It was bigger than the banks (when it wasn’t trying to buy them) and was the place that I, as an 11 year old boy transfixed on the BA advertising, knew I had to work.

So, whilst nicking a couple of extra mint imperials from the bill plate, I started to think who or what was to blame for this demise. Why were there so many shit ads out there? Why was my professional integrity being challenged? Did we tip appropriately?

Halfway home, it hit me — it’s the client’s fault. What the fuck do they know about great advertising? Of course, that’s it. Nailed on.

Tell me, what do clients know about great advertising? Much of what my friend Chris sees is a classic product of ‘Shit in, Shit out’. Read trade press descriptions of what a campaign was looking to achieve and be amazed at how the client is expecting a piece of advertising to deliver 3 or 4 different KPIs — then marvel as the ad is a derivative, pseudo-ironic line by line execution of the brief — You know the kind — for ‘prevents irritating bowel’ read ‘Packaging lands on CGI-humanoid-bowel poking people with a stick in the street’.

Or clients, unfamiliar with their brand values and heritage, plump for a Sunday-People-front-page- in-the-making celebrity whose whiff of desperation at getting 250 TVRs on repeats is almost as strong as the client’s need to frame pictures of the shoot ‘meet and greet’ to lavish their small, open plan hamster cage at Plonk.Inc

Someone once told me that only 10% of a client’s working time was available to work with Agencies. And, boy, is it starting to show. The other 90% of time is heavily involved with talking to The Street, managing politics, writing reports, meetings, P&Ls and budget cutting. It’s little wonder that when it comes to managing the ad process, many clients either palm it off to the junior or prescribe to the latter what it is they expect to see — all through the lens of 90% of their working life. Ads end up trying to do so much with one execution because they’re being filtered through the unrealistic demands of every other department in the business. Advertising is glorious — it is the sexy part of the job — it’s shoots, lunches, celebrity, parties, Soho, booze — everyone wants to have a piece of it — every department wants their 15 seconds of fame — and with 30 seconds in an ad, do the math (oh, of course Mrs.Client, we can deliver a 120 second version and run it at 3am on S4C).

The Client, as David Ogilvy once said, is “getting the advertising that they deserve”. Lazy, ill thought through, democratic, vanilla wallpaper. Where are the Clients that bought the old BA ads? What happened to the team that welcomed the baked-bean headed Tango man into their fold. Or those fun lovers at Hamlet and Carling who signed on the line for 2 of the most well remembered end lines of all time? Where did they go? What kind of hapless, hoofwanking suckers are deserving of the soulless pulp that adorns our screens (dual or otherwise) most nights now?

It really can’t be as simplistic as that can it? In other words, can the Yellow-pencilled, Armani suited espresso-atti of adland wash their well-manicured, Aesop-lubed hands of any association with the disappointment of my friend Chris.

I think not.

You see, all of the greatest ads ever have outstanding ideas at the heart of them. Ideas with their clackers swinging in your face like a badly strapped lady boy at Pride. They challenged society, insidiously changing language, behaviour and even media consumption. They spawned a myriad playground, pub and dinner table spin offs. People would joke that they ‘watched the ads more than they watched the TV’. And somewhere, we lost all of that. It’s as if Advertising folded it’s balls back into its Paisley Y-fronts and stopped challenging. For fear of failure; for fear of losing business; for fear of political correctness, somewhere along the way, the advertising industry lost its balls.

Agencies have been complicit in this — they let some daylight into the magic. They promised to do things cheaper, to charge less at the pitch and to allow ‘THOSE’ changes just this once so that they could get an ad out of the door. Instead of telling the Client that it’s not acceptable to ‘know what you want when you see it’, they’ve wimped out and instead, passive aggressively turned it into a cute little meme and pasted in on Facebook with 20 other ‘Nightmare Client Comments’ like some etch-a-sketch bully in an iPad world. They mothball bottom drawer ideas for fear of upturning the apple cart and have diversified into every other discipline from ‘retailtainment’ to ‘youthmatising’ whilst doing exactly what they tell their clients not to do — lose their heartland…heart stopping, tear-welling, finger-lickin’ idea generation.

Advertising is becoming a caricature of itself — desperately finding award after award to indulge itself for mediocre work or for real outliers that, in decades gone past, would not have even graced their showreels. Whilst, in the digital world, clients can engage their own audience far more efficiently, cleverly and contextually with their own in-house expertise. They can tap into the smaller, nimbler, more creative agencies at will and capitalise on their own audience and reach to create stronger ideas, better and more convincing messaging and creativity. The big Agency model has lost its swagger. It’s losing its heartland and is being eaten from within as smaller, more agile models come to light. The client is eating at the once sacred table and this is perpetuating the power clients have over the creative process.

It would appear that Advertising is getting the clients it deserves.

Chris wasn’t interested in my stats on the way home. I told him I’d seen somewhere online that 89% of ads are not remembered. 7% are remembered and not liked and only 4% are remembered and liked. Why oh why (he said) be satisfied with being one of the 89%. Why aren’t agencies and clients working together to get their ads in that magic 4%?

The dynamic of blame is what undermines trust, which in turn destroys creativity. The tea-bagging lunacy that was Advertising in its heyday was born of clients and agencies working for a common purpose in symbiotic relationships — a creative Yin, a commercial Yang, spooning each other in a loving, trusting marriage, not rutting like 2 Alpha teens in the back of mum’s Ford Ka. The 10% was more like 50% and getting to understand your client’s business wasn’t test-driving the car for 20 minutes at the test track before tucking into a 6 course lunch — it was working with the mechanics at a service centre until you found that tiny rock that got polished into a creative diamond. Deserving work that sold on the premise of real insight, not a lazy interpretation of a poor brief.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some recent examples of outstanding work where the relationships have been long-standing and the results are incredible. The diversity of media means that even more now, a well-formed idea has to be the bedrock of the creative output and then blown out across all channels. Weak ideas quickly fail and are ridiculed and ‘turkeyed’ faster than ever across social media that preys on those at the arse end of the Buffalo herd — those in the middle order enjoy the relative safety of the crowd but are one push away from the crocodile’s jaws at the river crossing. Those at the front, the 4%, continue to lead, seeing the clear path ahead and forging their destination. They don’t look back — they couldn’t care less about the lions or the crocodiles. Their balls swing free.

As we opened the door to my flat, Chris said -

“So, you’ve sensationalised the start of this conversation to draw me in by slagging off clients and now you’re telling me it’s the agencies fault — make up your CRUNTING mind son”

No, I said. Well yes. And, shit, I’ve been both.”

“You ought to know a thing or two then son — give me a few top tips” he segued nicely.

It’s not rocket surgery but it takes discipline, collaboration and real joint energy to make great ideas fly. In my experience, great ideas and advertising has, at its heart, disruption. The power to make you cry, buy or die (laughing, not literally — although that would be truly disruptive). That disruption has to be rooted in truth and executed aggressively. No half measures.

Firstly, there’s no getting around it — Client and agencies must work together to ruthlessly define and own the outcome they wish to see from the idea — it has to link back into some deep-seated truth about an opportunity that the business has seen to disrupt the status quo. Make their colleagues, consumers and competition squirm either with joy or fear as they focus solely on doing something incredibly powerful with the idea.

After that, Clients and Agencies need to embrace the idea of Wicked Problem solving, the sort of thing Stanford calls Radical Collaboration. That means getting together and interrogating what it is about the idea that is truly disruptive, ironing out problems, talking through incredible solutions, how it could permeate the business, impact different areas, provide brilliant solutions. I remember working with our lead agency on a project to better understand the customer journey for our brand. Once, collectively, we reframed it from a ‘customer journey’ to a ‘customer’s adventure’, the play field suddenly opened and we were able to build incredible ideas for content, engagement channel and purchasing opportunities that shaped the way we would do build ideas and business in the future.

This joint relationship has to crave simplicity — ask anyone who has done a TED talk — my friend told me that the crux of his 18 minute speech could be distilled into 8 words by the end. Great ideas and advertising does that and because its so single minded, people get it every time.

Together, this unbreakable partnership needs to fight for creativity that powers business. George Lois will always tell you that a great idea is a great business tool — so often, either one of the parties forgets this, discipline slips and the execution of the idea loses the power that was bestowed upon it at the Wicked Problem stage. It becomes too generic, loaded with messages or just plain flabby. The creative thrust has to be as sharp as the disruptive truth that gave it birth — the combination of the 2 delivers the end result. It also needs to live and find homes across the business. Not as a bastard child but as a fully embraced newborn with whom everyone has an affinity. We would often create a manifesto for campaigns that would become ways of living the brand through the campaign — they’d permeate the business, changing people’s views on how to make things happen, to communicate with customers or to live their lives. They became rallying cries, resonating and uniting an organisation across the world and bedding the ideas and advertising that followed with a series of fellows who had already fully embraced the passion of the single minded approach — I’ll never forget how powerful Be Stupid became in reframing our Diesel business in that respect.

Finally, both parties must be hungry for results, feedback and the responsibility that brings. So many times I had been in meetings and there was a lack of visibility on both sides of each others respective businesses models, expectations of results and joint ownership of both. Clients looking for huge upswings in sales revenue (the ads aren’t working!) and agencies looking to run some extra ‘films’ for awards. When everyone’s clear what constitutes success (as they should be from the start) then it makes absolute sense for everyone to want to celebrate that mutually earned and respected achievement.

So, in many ways there needs to be a disruption of the way clients and agencies operate in order that great, disruptive, behaviour changing ideas can be released. It’s happening — ‘Accelerator Units’, small, agile networks that operate outside the hierarchy of the main business and that draw on outside, best in class thinkers, is an approach that some big clients are using. This is a great kicker to get the space required to do some of the stuff above that brings about disruptive work.

There’s no hero or villain here. The simple truth is the real losers are those who see great ideas as part of the make up of society. Great advertising, like great beer, is the hallmark of a country. It mirrors, fuels and fucks up in equal measure the psyche of the nation. It is a benchmark for our humour, intellect and emotional state. It’s light relief and social glue. It deserves, no demands, a return to the brave, fearless and downright crazy approach that delivered the greatest work. Advertising and Marketing is not a place for the faint-hearted, the weak or the undeserving.

Of course client’s know great ads as do agencies. They both just need to give a fcuk more often about what they put out.

“I couldn’t give a shit” said Chris. “Where’s the beer”

Written by Scott Morrison — The Boom!

Scott has over 20 years experience both Client and Agency side. He is passionate about disruption in advertising and business

The above text was taken from the new Creative Social book, Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s Next Generation.

It features chapters from 35 leading creative directors and business owners. Some of the topics we cover are; what does the industry need to do today (not tomorrow) to stay valuable and relevant? Is digital collaboration the death of idea ownership? And should we make things people want rather than make people want things?

You can buy your copy on Amazon here. I highly recommend it (but as an author in the book I would).