Our institutions have failed our industry. Advertising’s future now depends on you.

Steve Harrison

Issue 60 | September 2021

The "you" in the title of this piece are those of you who work in our industry's agencies. The many clients who read Directory may, however, also find my personal POV to be of interest. I welcome any observations, questions and opposing arguments, and can be reached here: [email protected]

Recently, one of the advertising industry’s most powerful players made a remarkable admission.

He went on LinkedIn to complain that clients no longer appreciate the time and talent required to produce a quality product. Nor do they realise that this costs money. They want it quick and cheap. So “where once the public rather liked advertising and we liked working in the business, our consuming public now do pretty much anything to avoid it, and sadly a lot of us are looking for ways to leave.”

A day later, he took to Campaign to again blame clients who refused to pay their agencies enough money. Procurement has driven down the fees we charge to the point of destroying our ability to function. The result: miserable work and misery in the workplace.

He then lamented: “What was once a powerful business tool, that was capable of inserting itself into popular culture, that people said they liked as much or more than the programmes is debased and devalued.”

The author of this bleakly depressing vision? The Chairman of D&AD, Tim Lindsay.

(D&AD, or Design and Art Direction, is a UK-based advertising and design awards organisation that exists to stimulate, enable and award creative excellence.)

On LinkedIn, he’d closed by asking “How have we let this happen?” as if his organisation has had no responsibility for what he implied is the inexorable decline of a once brilliantly creative industry.

The truth is that this “powerful business tool”, which is how he described advertising, has been “debased and devalued” and D&AD and adland’s other institutions have allowed it to happen.

Convincing clients of the commercial value of brilliant, effective creative work - and the time and talent required to produce it - should surely have been the top priority of D&AD. Likewise WACL, the Advertising Association, Campaign, Creative Review, The Drum, the DMA etc. (If you’re reading this outside the UK, then simply insert your own local culprits.)

And given the dire straits we’re now in, equating creative excellence with products-shifted and profits-made should now be their equivalent of Cato the Elder’s “Carthago delenda est”*.

Unfortunately instead of lobbying, these institutions are preaching. Rather than saving our industry, they’re still more intent on saving the world – and in promoting advertising that sells a purpose-driven, progressive agenda that a conservative “consuming public now do pretty much anything to avoid”.

What’s the point of advertising?

Our institutions should be making the case for work that works. And not only to clients but also to people in the industry.

Since writing Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell, I’ve met young recruits who’ve told me they’d never realised that selling and generating a profit might have a beneficial impact.

But it gets worse. Last week, I was asked by a very bright student if I’d critique his book. Like so many others, it was full of ads about LGBT rights, transexuality and post-colonial guilt. In short, the kind of gesture politics that would prove wholly ineffectual if force-fed to the mainstream. And probably pretty irritating.

It’s not the youngster’s fault. Just look at the laughably predictable winners at the latest D&AD and Cannes Lions awards. The student was simply reflecting our institutions’ relentless focus on social issues.

If, at the moment, they were asked the question: “What is the point of advertising?” selling wouldn’t get a mention. As James Murphy, the founder of Adam & Eve and the UK’s most successful adman this century has pointed out, the ad industry is ashamed to talk about its fundamental purpose: “Making brands more desirable and easier to buy” and thereby achieving “a much higher conversion to sale”.

Why commercial purpose takes precedence over social purpose

This isn’t to say that you cannot drive sales with a social purpose strategy. Look at P&G’s Pampers ‘One Pack = 1 Vaccine’ promotion. It has run for 16 years and saved the lives of 750,000 babies and protected 150 million mothers and their children from the deadly disease, maternal and newborn tetanus.

So, it’s not either/or when it comes to social and commercial purpose.

But bear in mind that ‘One Pack = One Vaccine’ was devised to counter a rival’s ‘Buy One, Get One Free’ promotion. The needs of commerce drove the idea.

In other words, use social purpose judiciously, asking: “Will it help achieve my client’s fundamental need: demand generation?”

If we doubt the importance of this, our commercial purpose, we should remind ourselves that every time someone buys something we’ve advertised, we enable someone else to get paid. And not just the person in the shop where it was purchased. That sale pays the wages of the person who made the thing. Or grew it. The person who packaged it. The person in the warehouse where it was stored. The person who delivered it to the shop. And the person who cleaned the shop after closing time.

We must also realise that if there’s no sale, there’s no profit. And without profit then our clients’ commitment to CSR or ESG will, despite everyone’s laudable intentions, ebb away and margins will be squeezed, targets missed and promises broken.

Moreover, if we fail to make the case for the full-funnel, brand-building, sales-driving work that will stoke sustained growth, then client-side CEOs will continue to divert budgets to the direct and digital sales activation shops.

Indeed if we do not make this our go-to-market proposition, then those CEOs will wonder if they can trust us with anything. And pick up the phone to Accenture, Deloitte or S4 Capital.

In short, while competitors steal our livelihoods and our fellow citizens rebuild theirs after Covid-19, we’ll drift further to the margins of the business world and the culture we once enriched.

And as that happens, the exodus of people from the industry that Tim Lindsay talked about will not be voluntary. It will be enforced. First, amongst those over 45 years of age. Then the cull will start lower.

Don’t wait for the call from HR. And don’t console yourself with a D&AD Wooden Pencil for a woke-wash YouTube film that no one in the brand’s target audience will ever see.

Start right now by looking through and circulating this edition of Directory. Better still, contribute your work to it next time.

Most of the work that is showcased within these pages has some sort of justifiable commercial purpose. Study the campaigns that publish meaningful results and emulate them.

Then check out The Caples Awards winners (at winners) where the judges are specifically asked to recognise and reward work that sells.

Look at the brand building, effective work that is lionised there. Then emulate it, and start the fight back here, right now. The industry’s future depends on you.

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