A few years ago I sat in the office of a much-admired Digital Creative Director when a call came through from the mega-media shop that his agency was linked with via its global network. When the DCD saw the number flash up his shoulders slumped and he rushed around to find someone to answer the call and say he wasn’t available. He then switched his mobile off and we sped from the building for a long lunch, over which he explained his reaction. For the best part of five years he’d been taking those calls and a pattern had been established that he could no longer bear. It went something along the lines of the media powerhouse explaining they’d had a terrific brief from a client at MegaCorp and it needed some digital input. However, it would then emerge that the brief had already been answered and the client had bought a concept in the shape of an above-the-line campaign. So the digital agency was actually being brought into the process a few months after the brief had landed and was being asked to provide a digital execution of a TV spot. “Sometimes they just say, ‘make it go viral’”, said the DCD with the look of someone who’s been given a plate of old mutton and asked to give it a lamb makeover. I was reminded of this conversation a few weeks ago whilst talking to a creative team from a widely-regarded digital agency, also associated with a large parent network. One of them half-joked that...
Plus ça change it seems.
Now while it’s very easy to paint the mega-media powerhouses and large above-the-line creative agencies as the bad guys in all of this, it’s too simplistic to do so. Often the client wants his agencies to work in this way to simplify all the reporting procedures and billing structures. And for many large brand owners the above-the-line aspect of the marketing programme remains the most valuable part of the mix to get right. That groovy, feelgood TV spot or shiny outdoor 48-sheet is what they are going to use in key parts of their business. For instance, when convincing a multiple retailer to give them that oh-so-valuable extra four inches of shelf space in its 2000 national superstores. Or to their old-school chairman at the end of the year in a brand performance review.
And where that’s true for a national campaign it’s even more pressing for a global product launch, extension or promotion where the client's appetite for the simplicity of The Big Idea, or reductive thinking that above-the-line agencies do so well, becomes even more acute.
However, the problem is that in this status quo no one is really getting what they want.
The brand manager can’t experiment too much with funky new digital channels. He is caught between the rock of his Chairman’s shareholders and their forensic analysis of excitements such as dividend yield and the hardboiled place of the nation’s category buyers at Tescos et al; individuals who are very happy to see the new creative for the latest campaign, but only in the context of its contribution to their Gross Margin. Which normally translates into above-the-line media spend.
So the brand owners are forced to keep shelling out on above-the-line media and its shaky metric models, and can never quite get to the sunny uplands where beautiful creative treatments combine with the ruthless efficiency of digital channels and every buck knows its bang.
Furthermore, consumers (aka people) find their attention is fought over to such a degree that they may as well as stand in a room of people all shouting a brand or product name through a loudhailer, most of which they will never have an interest in buying. So they resort to the modern equivalent of ear defenders, in the shape of PVRs, ad blockers, paid streaming services, social networks and DVD boxed sets.
Meanwhile, the poor old agency networks and their constituent parts are required to come up with The Big Idea that can be used in seventy-eight global territories, whilst magically disseminating itself across the world for free via the web.
And somewhere in this media and marketing war of attrition, an above-the-line agency that has spent five months getting global buy-in from a valued client, emails a brief to a digital agency that, however well-crafted, will probably sound a lot like, ‘We have a new brief. Please make it go viral.' At which point the digital agency boss tells his PA he’s going out for a long lunch.
So what to do? As with so many of these issues, I think the answers may lie buried within the thorny and toxic world of agency ego, status and calcified vested interest.
When chatting around the issue with the aforementioned digital creative team, I commented that surely we’ve now reached a point where we can recognise the respective strengths of traditional and digital channels and each can be used to make the other more effective. Or in other words TV (however you take it) remains a great way to drive awareness of a product, service or brand, whilst digital and networked media help create personal relevance and that all-important path-to-purchase. Can't we just take the ingredients and tweak the recipe so it’s a little tastier for the modern palette I suggested, whilst trying not to sound too naive.
‘They won't let that happen because then it wouldn’t be their idea,’ replied one of the digital creatives about the above-the-line agency. And therein, I suspect, lies the rub.
The media and marketing industry is generally a sink-or-swim, take-no-prisoners, eat-what-you-kill business where clients and agency Grand Fromages can make a gold-plated career from being associated with a particularly successful campaign. This creates a ruthlessly competitive environment where the creative tensions required to come up with genuinely excellent, provocative and stirring ideas create a hothouse. But one in which the acquisition of Silver, Gold, Yellow or Black awards is what really counts. And, together with brands' thirst for simplicity in a complicated world, those awards require and drive clear ownership of The Big Idea.
So in an age where its never been easier to share with the world, the siloes of the marketing industry encourage its brightest folk to keep their wonderful ideas tightly clasped to their chests. And until that changes, the advertising business will remain vulnerable. In the emerging world of networked media the sleek technology-driven super-predators can’t release their new schemes fast enough. Which leaves them well-positioned to snaffle up media budgets while the agency teams are avoiding each other's calls.