Online Exclusive: A. Louis Rubin Viewpoint


And Why Ad Agencies Are Viewed as Laborers Rather Than Architects

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Marketing communications companies are not being given a seat at their client’s strategic table. It’s the sad truth that no one in the communications business wants to acknowledge or admit.
A. Louis Rubin is managing director of DPrime Consulting, LLC, an autonomous unit of Doremus and Omnicom Group.

It’s not that brilliant communications ideas don’t have a profound strategic impact on a business, because they do, but that clients view their communications companies as purveyors of execution with a bias toward the “what” of "what’s for sale" in the back room of their various “factories.”

The problem is widespread. A recent informal survey of corporate communications officers found them all in agreement that their CEOs did not value their marketing communications firms as a complete strategic partner to their business.

Boards of large public companies
More telling is how few communications professionals sit on corporate boards of large public companies. An examination of the Fortune 20 finds only GE with two working practitioners on their board (Ann Fudge of Young & Rubicam and Shelley Lazarus of Ogilvy & Mather). J.P. Donlon, editor in chief of Directorship, a monthly publication on corporate governance, notes that the "reason why there are few communications professionals on boards per se is that only a handful understand that communications is an amplification of business strategy -- not something separate or apart from it. Certainly CEOs need to understand this as well.”

The bottom line is that few communications professionals are invited into the inner sanctorum of marketers' strategy and planning sessions on the executive committee level.

How did this happen?

Somewhere along the way, ad agencies and other communications companies started thinking less about the strategy and more about selling execution. Worse yet, they started to fill their staffs with people who were craftsmen and not strategists. The result: They began to be viewed as laborers, not architects.

It wasn't always so
It wasn’t always so. At Scali, McCabe Sloves, Ed McCabe invented some memorable advertisements that were also great strategic synopses (for Volvo: “Safety”; for Nikon: “We Take the World’s Greatest Pictures”; for Purdue: “It Takes a Tough Man to Make a Tender Chicken”). Looking back on those executions today you can see they are pretty simple demonstrations of the strategy. No talking animals, no hordes of barbarians storming the shopping mall, no bikini teams. The executions were not a pantheon of special effects. They had a strategic underpinning that reflected the clients’ overall business goals. They were strategic organizing principles upon which to base all brand communications.

The work that Young & Rubicam did for RadioShack in the early '90s is another good example of how good strategy affects a business and cements the relationship between client and agency. RadioShack's "You've Got Questions. We've Got Answers" campaign was created to recognize that service at the retail level is what was for sale. It gave customers a reason to seek out RadioShack -- not just a piece or a part. It told employees what their jobs were about. It was a big strategic idea and Len Roberts, then CEO of RadioShack, invited his agency team in on every key business decision because they offered strategic insight into the client's most urgent business needs.

What these examples have at their core are big strategic ideas, because the only thing that binds people in an asexual entity called a corporation is an idea that people understand and live by. Says Donlon, “No executive or employee is going to throw himself or herself on a grenade for shareholder value. But an employee at Merck or Pfizer might stick his or her neck out to get a cure for cancer. The job of the communication strategist is to ensure the idea is big enough and powerful enough to convince people that the [business] goal is worth the effort and treasure. It's also the CEO's job to reinforce this every day."

Puerile jokes and titillation
But these examples tend to be the exception, not the rule. Nowadays, execution trumps strategy, special effects reign and puerile jokes and titillation are the platforms from which products are sold. And very few communications efforts represent the strategic underpinning for how a brand can utilize all the tools of an integrated marketing communications program -- from Web and public relations to advertising and trade shows, collateral sales material and internal communications.

It's great strategy, not execution, that can inform every constituent, from customer and salesman, from factory worker and portfolio manager to Wall Street analyst on how to view the brand and the company. The right strategic platform helps employees understand why they work for the company and provides a badge of pride that gets translated directly to the bottom line through productivity and purpose. It tells the investment community why this is a good company to invest in. And finally, it gives customers a deep, fundamental, thoughtful, considered and enduring reason to do business.

How to Develop Good Strategy

  1. First acknowledge that strategy is what you are selling. Not an ad. Not a logo. Not a list of public relations tactics. These are only executions and that makes them commodities to be evaluated subjectively, or worse yet, based on price of execution.

  2. Tell the truth. Suppress your excitement at having a revenue-potential client at the table and focus on the truth about product reality, competitive strengths and weaknesses and organizational problems and issues. CEOs have trouble determining truth from myth because everyone around them has an agenda to sell. To stand out, tell the truth.

  3. Throw out your factory -- the daily special on the menu -- to offer what the customer wants, not what you have in inventory. You must solve the client's business problem, not go in with your CFO's cost structure of how you have to utilize the specialized resources on your payroll.

  4. Focus on the client’s customer. Avoid the product attribute discussion that your client wants you to execute. Building a great strategy begins with an understanding of customer needs. And too often execution panders to internal audiences versus a strategic insight about the end-user.

  5. Hire people who think strategically. Now this may sound just plain dumb, but how many of you have recruiting policies in place where you go and visit Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Swarthmore, etc. in the spring to find the smartest, most imaginative minds in the world? How can you expect your organization to grow with the best talent if you don't have a program in place to find them?

If you want your client marketers to respect your thinking, start thinking from a strategic vantage point in an unbiased way. Start telling the truth. Divorce yourself from execution. Find the best fresh minds in the world to help. And maybe then you'll get invited into that walnut burled conference room.

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