Says Published Claims That Advertising Is Dead or 'Fallen' Are Just Wrong

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Two recent books -- Sergio Zyman's The End of Advertising as We Know It and The Fall of Advertising and the
Photo: D. Goodman
O. Burtch Drake takes issue with two authors' views about the advertising business.
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Do you think traditional advertising is ending or falling away as a major marketing force?
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by Al and Laura Ries -- take several heavy-handed shots at the role and value of advertising agencies in today's marketplace. They suggest that, for most practical purposes, the kind of traditional advertising that most agencies produce is dead on its feet, a dinosaur without real impact or relevance to marketers or consumers.

I beg to differ.

I readily admit that the authors, well-known marketing theorists and heads of their own marketing consultancies, make some solid points. These include the potential benefits of integrated campaigns, the importance of brand positioning and the ultimate goal of driving sales.

Inflammatory and negative
But upon close reading it's evident that the books' titles are considerably more inflammatory and negative about advertising and advertising agencies than the contents themselves. Putting all drama and personal business agendas aside, the fact is we're not about to witness the "end" or "fall" of anything.

Advertising continues to remain the single most vital component of almost any marketing plan. It's just as true that today's ad agencies produce successful, goal-oriented, creatively driven work that helps their clients' marketing efforts succeed. And for all the authors' spot-on observations, therein lies the fundamental flaw of both books: At best, they depict an outdated model of how agencies work and think; at worst, they fall back on exaggerated, inaccurate industry stereotypes.

In the worlds of Mr. Zyman and Mr. and Ms. Ries, ad agencies: believe it's more important to entertain than to sell; are run by aloof, sensitive creatives who consider themselves "artists" and pay no heed to client needs; and are only concerned about winning advertising awards.

The Ries book even goes as far as to state "the goal of advertising is not to make the product famous but to make the advertising famous."

Sensational, ludicrous
Let's be serious. These claims are sensational -- bordering on ludicrous. They are so sweeping and obviously one-sided that they threaten to tarnish the credibility of the many valid marketing points made elsewhere in the books.

Could the U.S. ad agency industry have grown to $18 billion in annual revenue if it failed to provide marketers with bona fide strategic counsel and effective marketing-communications solutions?

No service industry could survive if it displayed the kind of disregard and disrespect for clients depicted in these books. Successful agency-client partnerships are exactly the same as any other business relationship. They are built upon mutual trust, respect and results, and their well-being and longevity is based solely on maintaining all three of those pillars.

Ignoring the successes?
It's telling that both books cite the same few examples of popular ad campaigns that did not improve a client's business. But what of the hundreds of examples of ad programs that do drive sales and profits for clients every day? Even the authors grudgingly admit to the overwhelming success of advertising in building brands and market share for Pepsi, Altoids, Absolut, Aflac and Marlboro. Anyone who follows marketing can no doubt add a thousand other names: Volkswagen, Intel, Nike, Federal Express, MasterCard, Target, Wendy's, Dell and the Mini Cooper.

Both books also take issue with advertising's creative product. Instead of providing constructive criticism, they lazily resort to depictions of the process and the people that are so out of touch as to be almost comical -- and that are completely unrelated to the realities of today's agency world. The Ries' book even laughably suggests that agencies actually end successful campaigns simply because they're in the mood to create something different. What? It is inconceivable that an agency would sabotage a successful campaign.

Glaring omission
There is also a glaring omission in both books: no acknowledgement for account planning. It has evolved tremendously over the past two decades and is now an invaluable tool agencies can use to develop strategy and inform the creative process. Contrary to what these authors want you to believe, advertising campaigns aren't based on flights of fancy or some self-centered desire to be hip. They evolve from a firm foundation of primary and secondary research, analysis and clearly defined customer insights.

These two books foster dialogue and debate, and they remind us we need to continually challenge tradition. And that's fine. I'm sure they also serve as handy new business tools for the marketing consultancies run by each author.

But do they accurately represent how the vast majority of ad agencies operate? Clearly, the answer is no. Is the marketing battlefield changing every day? Certainly. Are ad agencies out of step with the shifting marketplace? Hardly.

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O. Burtch Drake is president-CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, New York.

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