WITHOUT GREAT WORK, THEN NOTHING ELSE REALLY MATTERS: BBDO'S CHIEF WARNS OF 'MUDDLED' AGENCY BRANDS

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My omnicom colleague Lee Clow, TBWA Worldwide's chairman-CEO, was recently quoted to the effect that an advertising agency should not consider itself a "partner" with its clients but should rather be happy to accept the more common client description of the agency as a "vendor." This was described as a "radical position" and, in fact, the "most notable" of Lee's various "original and controversial" points of view.

I think this does both Lee and advertising a disservice. Lee is capable of far more innovative thinking than that. Just witness his much-publicized work.

And our industry has far more important issues to face than whether we are seen by our clients as partners or vendors. Just witness the pressure on compensation so many clients are applying to so many agencies.

The point is if agencies don't get back to worrying about the quality of the work, which is the only basis for being paid anything, it won't matter what we are called because we won't be called at all.

And by the work I don't mean just the traditional media of TV, radio or print. The work is all the forms of communication we provide to clients. The work is everything we create that defines and distinguishes our clients' brands. The work is where the brand meets the consumer. The work is what touches their hearts and minds. The work is what leads to the sale.

Over the past decade at least, agency identities have become more muddled, less distinguished and, unfortunately, more like commodities than brands. We have confused growth with the tactic du jour.

MOUNTING CONFUSION

Every day, agencies announce non-core acquisitions or less-likely-to-succeed joint ventures or no-hope-of-succeeding alliances to show they understand and are committed to the imperatives of integration and interactivity. Every day, in a crescendo of PR hype, agencies declare themselves born-again disciples of new technologies, new convergences and new paradigms.

And every day we come dangerously closer to confusing our clients about who we are, what we are and why we are valuable to their businesses.

Our value is in the work-our creative ability to communicate memorably and meaningfully the relevance and distinctiveness of our clients' brands to their customers. The work is the only true measure of an agency and the only thing we can depend on to justify our existence.

Strategy, research, planning and media-no matter how new technologies may make them more effective and efficient in generating and focusing information-are not the products that ultimately define the client/agency relationship. They are absolutely essential to direct and deliver the work but they are not an agency's reason for being. And they do not differentiate one agency from another.

FINDING A DIFFERENCE

Everybody is unbund-ling media and forming consortia claiming greater client benefits. Where's the difference?

Everybody is announcing new interactive capabilities. Where's the difference?

Everybody talks about the need to manage consistent brand communication across all channels of customer contact, whether in sales promotion, packaging, public relations, you name it. Where's the difference?

Everybody is heralding the new age of database direct marketing and the importance of customer relationships and retention. Where's the difference?

Everybody claims to be a strategic consultant in clients' reorganizations or reinventions of their businesses. Where's the difference?

The difference has been and always will be the same difference that has separated one agency from another, all the way back to when the business was as simple as just making the ads. The difference was, is and always must be the work. It has been the singular devotion of every great name in modern advertising from Bill Bernbach on.

And, conversely, the lack of commitment to great work will be the undoing of those who think technology supersedes touch, who confuse information with insight, who substitute psychobabble for simplicity, who shower awards on incredibly stupid advertising claiming it is unintelligible only to unintended viewers, and who forget that a focus group is not how people actually receive and respond to our messages.

KEEPING HIGH STANDARDS

At the end of the day, I'm betting the BBDO farm on the idea that we will continue to succeed only by applying our standards of great work to every communication capability through which we reach our clients' audiences.

Whether we are creating work for traditional media or direct marketing or promotion or interactive advertising or forms of media yet to be made possible by new technologies, we will only be different, create difference and make a difference with superior work.

Or, as I hope BBDOers remind each other daily, in the absence of great work, nothing else matters-least of all whether we are called "partners" or "vendors."

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