Last month, Gap Inc. CEO Glenn Murphy bluntly told analysts on
an earnings call that he was "disappointed" with marketing efforts
for the company's largest brand, Old Navy. Around the same time,
adland was agape over General Motors' Global CMO Joel Ewanick
doling out grades for his highly-regarded agencies, Goodby,
Silverstein & Partners and Fallon , to the press. And when
Groupon's Tibetan plight-themed Super Bowl spots were deemed
tasteless, CEO Andrew Mason vented to Bloomberg BusinessWeek about
its work with CP&B, saying he
placed too much trust in the agency. "We learned that you can't
rely on anyone else to control and maintain your own brand," he
It's an about turn from a time when companies were reluctant to
talk about ad partners at all, let alone criticize them
And it begs the question: Isn't this a partnership? Where does
blame for bad advertising lie—with the agency or the
"I don't think it's great practice to publicly deflect blame,"
said Scott Davis, chief growth officer at marketing consultancy
Prophet. "But ... what shareholders and investors are expecting
from these companies is pretty lofty."
The recession that crippled the U.S. economy was a tipping point
for the accountability of marketing departments. Companies rushed
to scrutinize every aspect of the ROI from advertising initiatives.
No more leniency, and no more road-testing of campaigns. The rise
of the social web—where the saying "everyone is critic"
actually rings true—means one lousy logo can threaten to
engulf a sea of marketing successes.
Casey Jones, former Dell marketer and head of BriefLogic,
recalls when former Microsoft top marketer Mich Mathews asked him
in throes of the recession to help evaluate compensation structures
for its roster shops. "By early 2009, Mich was managing
unprecedented pressure from executives like COO Kevin Turner to be
cost-conscious and value-driven in agency negotiations," said Mr.
Jones. "The pressure on marketing departments translates almost
exponentially into pressure on agencies."
"It's almost like as soon as the stock price falls, their blood
pressure rises," said Christine Fruechte, president-CEO at
Minneapolis-based agency Colle & McVoy,
of clients. "One failed campaign can mean their career at that
"I can't tell our clients what to run," she said. "Agencies have
to be bold enough to state what they think will work and boost
business results. A CMO who blindly blames their agency isn't doing
their job, but an agency who says "Well, the client approved it'
isn't, either....If our clients are successful we are successful,
and if it doesn't work, your relationship is over and that makes
you look foolish."
Ideally, both an agency and the client should take
responsibility for a campaign that flopped—or even one that
's merely not going as well as expected.
But Prophet's Mr. Davis said if he had to "point the finger and
choose one" to shoulder the blame, he'd say it's on the marketer.
"The marketer, who is part of the C-suite, needs to own the
customer insights and the entire value proposition. ...The
advertising is only one part of the value proposition. To blame any
one single element of the marketing mix, I don't think that 's
A silver lining to the public bashing and increased pressure?
Agencies are viewed less as vendors and as more integral to a
"The flip side of the boss looking hard is that if you're doing
a killer job, your value to the company is far higher than it's
ever been in the past for agencies," said Mr. Jones.
Recently Yum Restaurants CEO David Novak called together its
lead agencies to help discuss how the company could boost sales for
its brands, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC. Mr. Novak didn't blame
the agencies, but rather asked them to help assess causes for
problems and come up with solutions. And, he asked what could be
done on Yum's part to help improve the creative product.
"The platform that marketing has today has never been bigger or
bolder," said Mr. Davis.