You Know Who's Boss -- Consumers

But Do You Really Know Them Well?

By Published on .

I don't get it.

P&G says the consumer's the boss, and we name the consumer Agency of the Year.
If what Howard Draft, above, at this year's 4A's management conference, is doing with his war-room teams and real-time sales data really works, it's not only breakthrough but has the potential to gain back some control over those pesky consumers. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
If what Howard Draft, above, at this year's 4A's management conference, is doing with his war-room teams and real-time sales data really works, it's not only breakthrough but has the potential to gain back some control over those pesky consumers. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below. Credit: Art Beaulieu

Everybody concedes that once advertising hits the printed page or the airwaves or is unleashed into cyberspace it takes on a life of its own and is out of advertisers' control. All the industry can do is get out of its way and watch the boss -- consumers -- run with it in ways the ad makers never even contemplated.

We heard lots of discussion at the recent American Association of Advertising Agencies' conference about ROI. But how can you even discuss ROI -- return on investment, ideas or involvement -- if you've already conceded advertising is out of your control? Why bother to exert your authority when consumer-produced TV commercials score better on the Super Bowl than lavishly produced ones from your ad agency?

It's kind of pathetic to read and listen to how agencies need to tear down their individual fiefdoms (called silos) to work together to produce ads that seamlessly follow consumers from one place to another. But both sides are having a hard time evaluating such ads, and insist on taking them apart to measure their individual components.

So almost by default, consumers are seizing control. These are the consumers who care enough about brands to shape them in the directions they think they should go. With so much marketing and agency turnover, in many ways consumers are the only custodians left for the brands.

To quote my favorite ESPN program, "Pardon the Interruption," I'd like to take a quick paragraph to (partially) defend the recent 4A's conference. I know we said the meeting lacked substance, but if what Howard Draft is doing with his war-room teams and real-time sales data really works, it's not only breakthrough but has the potential to gain back some control over those pesky consumers.

But what about consumers who feel disconnected? What about blacks and Asians and Hispanics who feel most brands aren't part of their lives, at least as they are filtered through the power structure of today's advertising business?

It makes all the sense in the world for ad makers (both clients and agencies) to be well-stocked with people who understand consumers, whether young people who fathom the mysteries of cyberspace, a good mixture of people who reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of our country, and, yes, even older people who understand the vitality and buying power of the great gorge of baby boomers overtaking our land.

Talk about the need for greater diversity in the business largely has fallen on deaf ears. Nobody likes to be told whom they should hire -- unless it can be demonstrated that hiring the right mix of people can improve the bottom line.

Agencies and their clients understand the importance of culture in directing ads to the right recipients with a message that reflects their background and interests. Ads for Ford trucks speak differently than ads for Aston Martins.

Culture has to do with all sorts of things -- education, religion, status, income, ethnicity, even music. It's driven not by color but by a common heritage that transcends color.

I like Jo Muse's approach to diversity because it incorporates the need -- the urgency -- to involve all constituents, including, presumably, the young and the old.

Jo, who runs an agency in Hollywood with Honda as his major account, believes culture "is more important than race, language or ethnicity."

If the ad business is serious about regaining control of its brands, it must first understand that the "boss" is not just a 35-year-old white American. He or she is younger, older and black, Asian or Hispanic.

A good place to start would be in the corridors of the ad-industry meetings, where too often we see the same people and hear the same things.
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