Consider this paradox:
The advertising industry spends big money on techniques that would make Steven Spielberg proud. Frogs that say, "Budweiser." Bears that drink colas. Dolls that drive cars. Products that "morph" out of the ground. Never has there been such dramatic and entertaining advertising. Hollywood has come to Madison Avenue.
And never has there been such a dramatic loss of agency loyalty among clients.
Could it be agencies are being too creative? That they feel "selling" isn't cool? That winning awards is more critical to success?
Or are clients too demanding? Do they make bad strategic decisions and blame the agency for their failures? Do they see agencies as commodities to be bought at the best price and changed at the whim of new management?
The answer is all of the above.
So how does this very serious situation get resolved? First, with all the client unrest, it's obvious that going Hollywood isn't working. Frogs don't sell beer. Dolls don't sell cars. Being cool and not selling doesn't sell anything. David Ogilvy warned long ago about "a disease called entertainment." It could appear the ad industry has caught it.
So how does it get cured? It must recognize it has a problem and get out of show business. Clients sell products, not tickets. Next, it must focus on what clients need to sell products.
That's not hard to figure out in this kill-or-be-killed global economy. Clients need help differentiating their products in the minds of customers or prospects.
If clients can't position themselves in some unique way, they had better have a very low price. Budweiser's "fresh beer" is that kind of idea. (In the old days, they would have been called USPs.)
But to find and focus on these ideas, a client needs objectivity and candor from an agency. Big companies are loaded with egos, personal agendas and pressure from Wall Street. They can't think very objectively. They want to keep growing by being everything to everybody. An agency must be prepared to tell a client its grand plans might not work.
This requires courage, more involvement by senior people and more emphasis on strategy. For example, someone should be willing to go to a client such as General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac and tell it that it's impossible to sell a Cadillac that looks like a Chevrolet. Or go to a McDonald's and keep them from trying to do an adult hamburger while their swingsets are still outside.
Back at the agency, once a positioning strategy is agreed upon, you can't let the strategy disappear in a cloud of technique. Those award-seeking creatives must be kept on track. Their assignment: Make the strategy as dramatic as possible. Don't change it.
Finally, you've got to get the right client people in the room.
In one of many strategy meetings at one of America's largest companies, a young lady presented one of the most important pieces of advice I've ever received about positioning. At the end of a presentation, she offered congratulations but said I would never sell any of my positioning ideas. When I asked why, she replied with a simple but brilliant observation: "You'll never have the right people in the room."
The top people, she explained, don't go to meetings like this. And powerful ideas always clash with someone's personal agenda. This ensures an early demise for any concept that has to work its way up the organization. Was she right! I've learned brilliant thinking never wins the day on its own merits. If you don't have the right people in the room, effective positioning becomes a long shot at best.
The CEO's office is the best place to rebuild client relationships. When the CEO is impressed with an agency's thinking, everyone in the company suddenly gets impressed.