What Madison Avenue Can Learn From Thinking Outside of Kleenex Box

Agencies Shouldn't Ignore Tony Palmer's Challenge

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"We have an advertising service industry that has been built ... as a manufacturing system for 30-second ads. The challenge for the industry and the challenge for us as a consumer-goods company is to rethink the way we work together."

That was Tony Palmer, CMO of Kimberly-Clark, at Ad Age's Media Mavens event last week, answering a question about what he would like for Christmas. Mr. Palmer made it clear that he thinks marketers need agency partners that let ideas and consumer insights drive channel choices -- rather than their existing departmental structures and revenue requirements. And he doesn't think the industry is there yet, not by a long shot.

Mr. Palmer might sound like one of those change-agent types, but in the style of a good old-fashioned marketing man, he sat on stage and later wandered the halls of the Hilton proudly brandishing a box of his company's Kleenex.

Or perhaps I should say an oval of Kleenex, for these were K-C's "Expressions" in their tony, trademarked, almond-shaped container.

The oval might not sound like a big wow, but it was a significant innovation in the category. The move was designed to attract younger, design-conscious consumers who didn't like having the old rectangular box sitting on their Kohler commodes. Reports suggest the boxes have been best-sellers and spurred some growth in a stagnant category.

But, as Mr. Palmer pointed out, they didn't happen without ripping up existing processes, changing people's job functions and investing heavily in a whole new production line.

Drawing an analogy between rectangular boxes of tissues and large ad agencies might be a bit of a stretch, but there's a lesson there somewhere. The bottom line here is that Madison Avenue's giants still have a lot of work to do to convince marketers that they can think outside of the box that is their TV department.

For all the talk of change from the ad-agency networks, marketers sound -- to my big ears, at least -- less convinced than ever by their offers. I asked four other marketing chiefs in attendance at Media Mavens what they thought of Palmer's comment. Their verdict: Go, Tony!

"I wanted to shout 'Amen!'" said Bob Thacker, senior VP-marketing and advertising, OfficeMax, a former CEO of one of the large agency network's offices, "but I was afraid I might get a lifetime supply of Kleenex, so I held my tongue."

Perhaps some of the networks think these CMOs are still just sounding off or won't get their way or are still rarer than the traditional CMO who is happy with the old model. But a glance at the Ad Age Power Players suggests otherwise: P&G's Jim Stengel, J&J's Brian Perkins, Unilever's Simon Clift, Coke's Katie Bayne, and Tony Palmer all could be considered CMOs on a mission to build a newer, better marketing-services model. And they're all making changes to get it done -- even if that means moving brands and assignments to smaller, better-integrated shops.

And in case you didn't catch it, the new top marketing execs at Ford and Chrysler -- the former Toyotans, Jim Farley and Deborah Wahl Meyer -- are hardly traditionalists either.

This year a number of choice assignments have moved from large agency networks to smaller -- if not necessarily small -- creative shops. Among them: Subaru, Volvo, Jeep, Sprint, Dominos and, last week, PlayStation.

Sure, some have moved the other way, too -- Monster, for example, -- but it feels as if there's a shift going on, with Martin, Crispin, Goodby, Wieden, Arnold, Deutsch and a host of smaller would-be Goodbys among the beneficiaries of some of the large networks' perceived deficiencies.

Maybe it'll come full-circle, or maybe the networks need to heed the lesson of the oval and accept that more upheaval is inevitable if they're going to get themselves into shape for the marketing future.
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