Though the debate over the effectiveness of arty advertising goes back decades, the tensions between the two sides is more heated today, and definitely more dangerous in its business impact.
Want proof? Nissan Motor Corp. USA's "Mr. K" campaign from TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., scored with critics but left auto dealers complaining about unmoved inventory. End result? The resignation last month of Nissan USA President Bob Thomas.
That was followed soon after by the shocking news of an account review for Levi Strauss & Co.'s Levi's brand, even though creative work from 67-year agency partner Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, has earned consistently rave reviews.
TYPIFIED BY 'DICK'
If the current debate has a spokescharacter, it's clearly "Dick," the fictional adman behind a Miller Lite campaign so controversial that Miller Brewing Co. felt obliged to call a press conference in New York after the effort broke to defend the ads from Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, and their results.
With so much at stake, it's no surprise that fear and passions are running high. Increasingly, this culture clash over whether ads that entertain -- and provoke -- can also work as ads that sell is polarizing the industry and dividing marketers and ad agencies.
The argument is being fueled by reasons ranging from increased pressure on all businesses to produce measurable results to the sky-high costs of commercial production and media time.
When Nina Cohen, marketing VP at Norwegian Cruise Line, parted company with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, for producing a campaign that she felt was gorgeous but irrelevant ("Every frame of those ads was frameable," she said, "but we're not in the framing business"), she was barraged with calls and letters from colleagues.
She summed up the response this way: "Either I should be the marketing director of every company in America or I didn't know what I was talking about."
For his own part, Co-Creative Director/Partner Jeff Goodby -- who naturally considers his shop's Norwegian Cruise Line work both beautiful and effective -- said people are now so fervent about this debate he was reluctant to answer when some of his own clients asked his opinion about the controversial Nissan campaign.
"It was kind of like the McCarthy hearings," he said jokingly. "You know, 'Are you now, or have you ever been, an admirer of Nissan's advertising?' "
The intense opinions held by people in both camps bewilder Ms. Cohen, despite her experience on both the agency and marketer sides of the business.
"Aren't we all here to do the same thing?" she asks, meaning to build brands and businesses.
Well, yes. What's in contention is how to do it.
"This comes out of a basic disagreement about what the role of advertising is," said Bob Kuperman, president-CEO of TBWA Chiat/Day North America, Nissan's agency, and a shop passionately on the side of ads that move people.
As Mr. Kuperman sees it, one side says you must sell, and that you do that by giving consumers just the facts, while the other side holds that you have to build an emotional bond between consumers and brands that goes beyond product attributes.
"Before you can be believed, you have to be liked," said Mr. Kuperman. "If we use this belief in the way we conduct our daily lives, what makes us think consumers don't use that process in the decisions they make?"
Mr. Kuperman and other creatives like to cite the teachings of Chairman Bill [Bernbach]. The legendary adman, they claim, preached that persuasion is an art, not a science, and its success is dependent on a complex mix of intangible human qualities that can be neither measured nor predicted.
"There are different factions out there that would like to make this a science," Mr. Kuperman said, "and this kind of work drives them nuts."
"When anything like [Nissan's] Mr. K works, people become upset because it is totally irrational," agreed Steve Hayden, creative director on the IBM Corp. account at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, who also believes most consumer buying decisions are made using irrational processes.
"It's the ad industry's reflection of the essential Platonic/Aristotelian split in the world," Mr. Hayden added, pitting two groups of people against each other "who usually can't agree on which direction is up."
Rationalists -- and there are plenty of agency executives on this side of the aisle -- take great delight in pointing out how "creative" advertising doesn't work, citing long lists of award-winning campaigns that failed in the marketplace, from Alka-Seltzer's "spicy meatballs" to spokes-liar Joe Isuzu. They say such ads are creatively self-indulgent and grossly inefficient.
Proponents of emotional advertising counter that rationalists are purveyors of commercialism at its crassest, sponsors of bland, "Ring around the collar"-style messages that appeal to greed, fear or insecurity and give the industry a bad name.
"So much advertising is ugly," said Mr. Hayden. "It's a form of pollution."
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the bottom line.
"Most clients are driven by results," said Jack Trout, a veteran brand-marketing consultant at Trout & Partners. "Their lives revolve around how they're doing out there. They don't care about winning awards, and when their advertising doesn't work they get all bent out of shape."
Given the current costs of media and production, he said, the adage about not knowing which half of your ad budget is wasted takes on an ominous new meaning: "Even half a budget is a ton of money these days."
The growth of account planning, with its emphasis on the social sciences and consumers' emotional responses, has also played a role in stoking the current conflict.
"An astute planner will find a way to sell work that is unexpected and surprising, and where one has to look well below the surface to find the real message," said Stan Richards, creative director and principal at the Richards Group, Dallas. Added Mr. Hayden, "It's a way to get clients comfortable with something that by any other measure would be insane."
The role of planning leads directly to the development of strategy. And opponents of "creative" ads say strategy is exactly what most of this work is missing. Developing ads that are offbeat and cool, they say, is not a sound strategy for selling beer.
But some creatives -- the ones Mr. Hayden refers to as "poets" (compared to the more hard-nosed "killers") -- blanch at following strategies.
"They look on it as evil; it's a destroyer of dreams," Mr. Hayden said. "Sometimes, though, it's just a confrontation with reality."
Norwegian Cruise Line's Ms. Cohen said while there are some "creative icons out there who feel they have some higher voice to answer to," she feels compelled to point out that, as clients, "we're the ones you have to answer to."
And while she is sensitive to their desire to create work that is entertaining and popular, she added, "We don't think that should preclude the mandate to sell product."
Mr. Trout believes one explanation for the advertiser discontent that's behind so many big account moves of late is a lingering feeling agencies can no longer be counted on to provide clear strategic thinking. As a result, he said, the shops frequently adopt the viewpoint that since there's so little that clearly differentiates the brands they work for, the message itself is the strategy.
Clients, Mr. Trout said, "have a sense that agencies can't think their way out of a paper bag. They can't create strategies, and they have a bunch of kids running around on the business while the senior guys are all doing their financial deals."
Agencies today can't tell the difference "between a slogan and a positioning idea," he added. "Just being cool, or just being talked about, is not a strategy."
BRANDS NEED A PERSONA
Lee Clow, creative director at TBWA Chiat/Day -- who has seen his own storied reputation in the creative community tremendously enhanced by the Mr. K campaign -- begs to differ.
"Why isn't the persona of the brand considered a real difference?" he asks. "Is it because it's too esoteric?"
Establishing a strong brand personality, sometimes at the expense of extolling specific product features, is what has been driving not just Nissan's work but Levi's and Miller Lite's as well. In these cases, the marketers firmly believe they're talking to consumers in their own language.
Problems arise when these same messages hit consumers who don't understand them, because of age, gender gaps or cultural factors.
"The art part of this, the part that deals with human nature, and what works and what doesn't -- and that no good creative person could explain -- is what all the controversy is about," said Mr. Kuperman.
Miller Lite's post-modern "Miller Time" campaign is one that seemingly defies explanation. But Jack Rooney, Miller's VP-marketing, said the campaign simply reflects the changes among beer consumers.
"We're facing a different challenge today," Mr. Rooney said. "The people who buy our brand will lead us to solutions, and if we don't listen to them and [instead] hew to the old rules, they will judge us at the cash register."
NEW RULES NEEDED
Robert Lauterborn, James L. Knight professor of advertising at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, agrees the old rules don't apply in today's world.
"Advertising is the facilitator of a dialogue between a marketer and his customers or prospects," he said. The tone of that dialogue is characterized by "the relationship between the customer and the brand."
This core belief, usually supported by client research and/or the strategic voodoo practiced by account planners, makes some marketers quite comfortable with the off-center approach.
"The philosophy and history of Levi's has always been that it's more about the relationship between the brand and the consumer than any product attributes," said Steve Goldstein, VP-consumer research and marketing for Levi's USA.
Mr. Clow believes that relationship becomes even more crucial as media choices proliferate. The rationalists are "a bunch of suits grasping at straws, trying to figure out what their future is," said Mr. Clow. In his view, this future "belongs to the communication artists, to people who know how to make things stand out on the screen or the page and who know how to manage the confluence of media that's happening now."
Those who will fail, he said, are those who try to figure out a rational process for making that happen. About the only way the "suits" are comfortable, he added, is with reasoning that's dictated "by some bullshit that comes out of a logic stream that doesn't reflect the way that most communication is received."
PRODUCT HAS TO DELIVER
Mr. Goodby said those involved in the debate shouldn't lose sight of the fact that advertising alone doesn't make a sale, that the product and the marketer also have to deliver on promises.
"Arguments about these campaigns often take place in a vacuum, apart from a discussion about the viability of the products they're for," Mr. Goodby said. "They're frequently created for products that need radical surgery in the first place."
As a result, he said, both the campaigns and the brands often fail in the marketplace. When that happens, Mr. Goodby added, marketers should be held just as accountable as agencies.
Most of the vocal supporters of advertising that connects on an emotional level insist selling product is as much a priority for them as it is for the rational side.
"We've proven that this kind of advertising works, otherwise we wouldn't be in business, us or the other agencies that practice the craft at this level," Mr. Kuperman said.
Mr. Goodby also argues that the impact of entertaining advertising on sales isn't always easily quantifiable for good reason: "It's where the magic happens in advertising, and you can never predict that. It's dangerous to be suspicious of that."
THE WAR CONTINUES
Will there ever be peace between these warring factions? Probably not, at least as long as there are marketers and agencies that make a point of trumpeting which approach works best.
Where these worlds undisputedly meet is in the marketplace.
"Ultimately," said Mr. Richards, "they come together in only one place: Do they drive business? No matter how non-strategic a piece of advertising may be, if it drives business it will have a life of its own . . . There are lots of frivolous