The Ad-Agency Business Is Losing Sight of Its Purpose

What the CP&B-Burger King Relationship Tells Us About the Lack of Enduring Ideas

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain

Have you ever seen the agency business more screwed up? With a very generous helping hand from the clients, of course.

Let me count the ways: Agencies can't keep good people and they can't afford to hire adequate replacements because of the pressure on their margins; they're not doing very good work because they've gotten too big and cumbersome; clients don't give clear directives; and there's no long-term thinking on either side.

And, oh yes, they refuse to take any blame for the mess they've created for themselves. "I don't think the clients are structured in such a way to work with the agencies. Just like we built siloed agencies, they have all these different departments that work with different agencies that don't communicate with each other. The agencies are willing to change, but are clients going to change fast enough to do what's right for them?" complained Howard Draft of DraftFCB at the 4A's conference in March.

A more basic problem is that clients -- at least during public forums -- tend to couch their directives for their brands in the rhetoric of the moment.

For instance, back in 2006 marketers liked to talk about how they were turning over their brands to consumers. Russ Klein, then-marketing boss of Burger King, said such a move enables "social connectivity" as a means of empowerment, and so at the time the BK strategy was to develop "social currency." And to achieve this aim it was more important "to be proactive than pleasant," he said.

Now the emphasis seems to be reaching the ever-elusive consumer within a specific cultural context. Ralph Santana, senior VP and CMO of Samsung Electronics North America, contends it's not enough to make better products; you've got to show that your brand has "deeper social and cultural meaning."

Can you imagine the mischief agencies make with these kinds of squishy directives?

The CP&B–Burger King relationship was built on the idea that the agency didn't need to come up with a big, enduring idea. All the agency had to do was provide "social connectivity," and it chose to fulfill those amorphous marching orders with a series of one-off promotions that generated conversation but little else.

It's not easy to come up with great, overarching, brand-building, long-lasting ideas. Pepsi-Cola's last campaign was "It's the cola," and that drove it to abandon trying to entertain us and instead shame us into buying the brand because it was doing good works and we aren't.

I've called CP&B a "one-trick pony" for its shenanigans on Burger King. But with so much turnover on the client side, it's almost impossible to stay with a unified theme. The company needs to keep the cash registers ringing, so about the only thing it can do is unleash its agency to create zany promotional ideas to get people talking. And even though the franchisees objected to BK's narrow focus on young men, this segment was the easiest to target with silly frat-boy humor. Frat boys will laugh at anything -- the dumber the better.

It was CP&B's misfortune that poor old kicked-around Burger King was finally bought by a company that threatens to give it some stability. The company, an investment firm with Brazilian ties (like InBev, the company that bought Anheuser-Busch), bought BK last fall. The latest CMO resigned in February, and the new Brazilian CEO took it upon himself to fire CP&B last month.

Maybe it's a good thing that the new BK management is undertaking the agency search without first hiring a marketer in chief. Maybe the investment company realizes that if it wants to get its money (and then some) out of the fast feeder, what's needed is a long-term selling idea that encourages broad usage of the facilities.

Maybe marketing is too important to cede to the marketing people, because "Have it your way" has come to mean whatever the agency wants.

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