Commentary by Rance Crain


Today's Ad Agencies May Be Their Own Worst Enemy

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Here's a scary thought: Maybe marketers are trying to move away from traditional advertising because traditional advertising has deteriorated to such a low level of creativity.
Rance Crain, editor in chief, 'Advertising Age'

Maybe the oft-heard statement that the mass market is dead, that consumers can't be reached via the 30-second spot, that all this talk of needing to reach consumers in radically different ways is a gigantic rationale for the real truth -- that traditional advertising isn't creative enough to move the merchandise.

Mass market not dead
It's nonsense to think that the mass market is dead. It's just harder to reach. But great advertising still has the capacity to bring consumers together, to reassemble them as a mass market. The problem is there's very little reason for them to get together.

TiVo, not just the brand but also the concept, represents to me the weapons of mass destruction that were never found in Iraq but nevertheless were used to justify our invasion. The threat of TiVo was used to justify product placements within TV shows because of the threat that viewers would bypass the commercials when they TiVo-ed the programs.

We heard a lot of that palaver at the first two Madison & Vine conferences. This year there was nary a word about TiVo as a weapon of mass destruction.

Deal-killing agencies
I get the feeling that marketers have just about given up on the creative force of ad agencies. We heard from deal makers who broker entertainment and brand involvement that the only role agencies play is to show up and try to kill their brand's tie-in with music and movies or TV shows. One marketer at Madison & Vine told me agencies see such involvement "as more of a threat than an opportunity."

Geoffrey Frost, keynote speaker at M&V and senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Motorola, said to me when I chatted with him for my introductory remarks that the "creative energy has shifted to the smart clients."

It doesn't have to be this way. Maybe clients need a better way of generating great advertising from their agencies. Maybe they need a chief advertising officer.

Client creativity
That's the contention of Mark Silveira, an agency guy who wrote Ordinary Advertising. And How to Avoid it Like the Plague. His idea is to take an agency creative director with 20 years or more experience and bring him or her over to the client to fight for (and interpret) great advertising.

Identifying extraordinary advertising
The chief marketing officer can't be expected to do the job because the CMO is busy with a lot of other things. Plus, "there's absolutely no reason to believe the typical CMO has received any more training in the identification and nurturing of extraordinary advertising than some lowly associate brand manager just out of Wharton," Mark writes.

"I'd also argue that with all those other Ps to attend to -- product, placement and price -- it's not like the CMO has nothing to do. Especially since a good chunk of that fourth P -- promotion -- isn't pure advertising either. It's merchandising, display, sales, incentives, coupons and so forth."

Mark doesn't explain in his book why the advertising director couldn't fulfill the CAO role. He e-mailed me that in his experience the advertising-management structure often has a staff role instead of a line one, with no direct accountability for the business performance of advertising. "In cases like this, the advertising director is often more responsible for media expenditures, agency compensation and production costs than he or she is for the quality of the advertising itself," Mark contends.

My point is that before we flood the culture with brand references at every turn, maybe we should take another stab at fixing the wobbly and sputtering mechanism we already have.

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