Leading North American advertising agencies used to be headed by creatives and innovators. Today, managers and accountants hold the reins. The result? Less focus on innovation, and more on efficiency and maintaining revenue.
This has created a crisis in confidence in the sector, with vital young talent pursuing their passion in sectors like tech.
Andrew Carty’s agency Send+Receive is rethinking the role of agencies, and changing a number of accepted practices to put the focus back where it belongs. Crafting great ideas.
Carty’s agency is also re-emphasizing the importance of selling, striving to achieve outcomes that should make any client CFO smile.
Andrew joined me for a lively discussion where we covered these issues, and more.
You can check out the actual interview by pressing play. Or skip ahead to the highlights that follow. Enjoy!
Advertising is the business of selling things. We are vital cogs in the machine of capitalism. And while the bloom may have gone off the capitalist rose, it remains our most effective tool for creating outcomes we all desire – comfort, wealth and security.
Carty feels advertisers have grown bored with selling, chasing more ethereal, complex measures of success instead. Driving impressions, creating engagement… everything but sales. This could be a direct outcome of an hourly billing structure, which tends to encourage adding non-essentials to justify more work. Or it could simply be the result of sales becoming disassociated from marketing – a trend that could put advertising agencies in serious jeopardy.
Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs. As Carty says “Our job is to get to the heart of what makes a product special and figure out how to sell that. It’s simple. And, I believe, endlessly exciting.”
Post-recession, consumers may have less money, but large companies and brands are sitting on unprecedented wealth. How do advertisers get them to unlock the war chest?
According to Carty, it isn’t by doing defensive, status quo work. “We aren’t in the maintenance business – we’re in the creation business. But the creative modus operandi contradicts the status quo mandate of holding companies and shareholders. Risky, bold work is, by its nature, well, risky. Unfortunately, timidity has become the new normal. What client would pay vast sums of money for work that, at best, maintains market share?”
Carty bemoans the sameness of most advertising. While he does point the finger at the ‘status quo mentality’, he also sees another fundamental fault in the system – consumer insight driven research. “We’ve come to believe that ads should cater to consumer needs. This completely de-emphasizes the awesome stories products have to tell. I believe if you start by unearthing the magic of the product, then go to consumer, you create much more original, impactful advertising.”
Carty’s agency Send+Receive was created to answer to rapidly shifting client priorities. “We haven’t seen the agency model fundamentally change in 50 years, despite the last half century being one of unprecedented change and innovation.”
Carty points out simple fixes like moving to an outcome-based fee as progress. He also emphasizes the importance of building an agency that’s small and nimble, without the burdens of network overhead inflating client costs.
Ultimately, it’s about getting to better results, faster. A mantra of modern capitalism. And, with any luck, a breath of fresh air for ad agencies.
Consumers don’t care about your brand’s terrific features. In fact, most of them wouldn’t notice if you evaporated into the ether.
There’s more than sensory overload at work here. It has to do with the way our brains are wired.
As Oren Klaff writes in Pitch Anything, our lizard brain – the primitive one we started with – is our most trusted gatekeeper. And it’s programmed to respond to every stimulus in one of three ways:
Assuming your brand doesn’t frighten consumers off, make them hungry or frisky, the lizard brain instructs them to ignore you and move on.
So how do you get the lizard brain’s attention, and potentially even get your message passed along to the more sophisticated neo-cortex, where your scintillating persuasion can have its day in court?
You need to create tension, and attraction.
If you’re in advertising, you were schooled in creating attraction. Bright colours, chiselled abs, catchy jingles and clever turns of a phrase are your stock in trade. You know but sounds like butt, and cheap shots like that grab eyeballs.
But attraction alone isn’t enough. We’ve all seen enough beautiful people in ads. The attraction wears thin after a few seconds.
What’s needed to hold the lizard brain is something novel, something that just doesn’t seem right, a source of tension and discord.
Tension is tricky. Too much, and it triggers fear in the lizard brain. That just makes consumers turn tail and run away. Too little, and the lizard brain tells the consumer to move along, nothing to see here.
In simple english, you need to create a “it’s this…but it’s also that.”
Here’s how it works, when it’s working perfectly. The consumer is attracted to your brand, because it somehow stands out from the crowd in a non-threatening way. She zooms in to take a closer look. At that point, she notices that something isn’t quite right. Not in a ‘bear-trap-under-the-leaves’ way, but in a ‘I’ve never seen these two attributes combined before’ way. Not threatening, but intriguing.
Her lizard brain then does something miraculous. Having vetted your message as safe but worth investigating, it passes you along to the neo-cortex, where your copy gets read, your offer gets considered, and perhaps you even get pulled off the shelf for a closer look.
So how do you get to that kind of tension? Truth is, most brands worth buying already have it. You just need to look a bit.
One of the first projects I worked on where we explicitly triggered tension in every ad was for Sunoco Ultra 94. This fuel combined high octane (for better engine performance) with ethanol (for less pollution). Those two attributes simply didn’t belong together.
Combined with a highly attractive bright yellow license plate ad format, the messages resonated extremely well with consumers. Sales went up on a shoestring ad budget. There was an added bonus for the teams working on Sunoco messages – it was easy to find ways to express tension. We had no problem coming up with hundreds of ads that reiterated the juxtaposition between high octane and low emissions.
The tension doesn’t need to be in the product to work, either. I just completed a project where our brand united engineers with managers – two groups who see eye to eye on very little. This is the classic ‘You got peanut butter on my chocolate / You got chocolate in my peanut butter’ tension. One product that creates harmony between conflicting worldviews.
Take a look at your brand. Chances are, it was the result of two products blended together in a new way (conditioning shampoo), two benefits that didn’t previously co-exist (luxurious, yet affordable clothing), two worlds combined (mixed martial arts). It’s worth digging for.
I mentioned before that the lizard brain doesn’t have much patience. It also doesn’t handle nuance terribly well.
That means your tension has to be real. Your Miller Lite actually does have to taste great and be less filling.
If it isn’t, the neo-cortex will instruct the lizard brain to simply ignore any further entreaties by your brand. You’ll be thrown out of the kingdom forever. Or until your brand creates a new device for attraction / tension that overrides the lizard brain’s wariness. Not an easy task.
Advertising is in decline.
Pundits and observers blame it on everything from the million channel universe and digital-era tilting of the scale from persuasion to information, to the muscle of consulting behemoths pushing agencies out of the game.
Cal Harrison has another problem to add to the pile. Price-based bidding.
According to Harrison, the preponderance of RFPs with cost criteria has turned bidding for projects into a lowest-price-wins-all battlefield. The result, unsurprisingly, is a toxic environment where the winning agency feels forever shortchanged, the client sees hidden costs in everything, and mistrust and acrimony rule. Inevitably, the relationship ends prematurely, with the client storming off in search of a better – aka less costly – agency.
Harrison came onto my radar as a result of a thought-provoking TEDx talk he delivered on the subject. I took the opportunity to reach out to him for a chat that covered how to turn RFPs into a Qualification Based Selection process – a methodology being used to great acclaim in the US. (You can check out his book on the subject here)
If you’d like to listen to our conversation, simply click play. And if you’d like the Coles notes highlights, read on.
QBS is a concept that comes from the world of engineering and architecture, but is beginning to see use in the bidding process for ad agencies.
In essence, QBS eliminates price from the bidding criteria. Instead, it hones in on relevant experience and qualifications, with the goal of finding the partner best suited to the job.
As Harrison explained, the concept works because it fosters innovation and partnership, not nickel and diming.
There’s nothing new or revolutionary about it. In fact QBS reflects the methodology employers use to hire employees. I check out your qualifications and your experience, we determine if we like one another, and I lay the proposed salary on the table. If you accept, you come aboard. If you don’t accept, the search continues. No hard feelings, no harbored resentments on the job.
In an ideal world, agencies would be remunerated based on the outcomes they create. This may seem pie in the sky (and impossible, given there are so many x factors between the moment a consumer sees an ad and the moment they purchase), but it is entirely possible to hire agencies based on outcomes.
Let’s say a client wanted to launch a new chewing gum and take it to #1. In an RFP scenario, the client would describe the challenge and let the bidding war begin. The victors would probably be cheapest, but would they be the best for the job? Unlikely.
In a QBS scenario, on the other hand, the call for contenders would highlight the need for applicants to demonstrate their previous experience taking edible products to #1. There would be a far higher chance of awarding the work to the most deserving agency.
This ‘outcome’ scenario is too fuzzy for the RFP bid process. After all, getting to an ideal outcome may take several runs at the challenge – a cost no winning agency could afford on their lowball budget. As a result, RFPs most often take the form of task lists in order to make the work expectation more tangible. These task lists eliminate a core competency of good agencies – the ability to devise a creative way to get the job done.
Do clients actually save money using the RFP bid process? Not according to Harrison.
He illustrated the point with a terrific story he heard from an architecture firm. This firm was bidding on a $50,000 project. By the principal’s estimation, preparing the bid was going to cost a whopping $20,000 in hours. Did I mention RFPs are generally created by bureaucrats and compare in complexity to tax codes? Kidding. Kinda.
It gets better. The principal discovered 37 other firms were in on the bid. That’s 38 x $20,000 spent pitching, or $760,000. The entire project – not just the architecture – was budgeted at $500,000. The firms were spending 1.5 times the cost of the entire project, simply so that one of them could win the work. And the winning firm was probably going to lowball, meaning they’d get the project for $45,000.
When Harrison relates this story to buyers of architecture services, they shrug their shoulders and tell him it’s simply a cost of doing business for architecture firms. To which Harrison replies that it’s a cost of business the buyers were paying for in the form of overhead charged by the architecture firms. That is, the buyers pay an inflated cost – even if they get a lowball bid – because the ‘going rate’ of architecture firms is padded with overhead ballooned by bids.
Harrison pointed out that in the US, the Brooks Act eliminated price bidding from RFPs in architecture and engineering. In Canada, there’s a growing movement toward the QBS methodology. The results – higher calibre work with fewer cost overruns – are welcomed by both buyers and suppliers.
So can QBS save advertising agencies from becoming lowballing commodity providers? It would certainly be a step in the right direction.
The interview produced such an embarassment of innovation inspiration, I transcribed the greatest bits and posted them on Unreasonable.is, the blogsite tied to startup disruptor The Unreasonable Institute.
If you’d like a jolt of ‘lemons to lemonade’ thinking, check out the transcribed story here!
I should know this. I’m a brand specialist.
But again and again, I find myself throwing authentic brand around in conversation, enjoying the feeling of gravitas it lends, without actually understanding what the heck it really means.
Go ahead, smart guy, you tell me. See?
A term like authentic brand comes along every once in a while, and grabs all of us tired brand stewards by the collar with its promise of revitalization and redemption.
We jump aboard, vowing to build greater authenticity (or synergy, or innovation, or whatever the mot du jour is) into our brand. Inevitably, our enthusiasm wanes and we get back to worrying about pressing things like channel strategy and website bounce rate.
I put this down to the fuzziness of the term. Fuzzy terms may impress for a while, but then they sound dated and over.
I didn’t want authenticity to suffer this fate. So I decided to go back to basics: what defines authenticity in life? Perhaps by understanding this, we can begin to apply these principles to brands.
Happily, that subtle shift cleared the air. When I pondered about how I’d like to live, I had no trouble hammering out seven principles that would leave me smiling, content, and feeling, well, more authentic.
Here they are. I hope they help you, your brand, and your cocktail conversation.
Why the heck was your brand born in the first place? Somewhere back in the fog of history, somebody must’ve felt a burning need for something. Your brand was invented to scratch that itch.
I’m always surprised by how many brand stewards don’t know this stuff – especially if the brand predates their tenure with the company.
Brands are never born just because. Dig into your roots, and you’ll probably find a rich history of people driven to bring your brand to life, and people whose lives were enriched because of your brand.
Brands are never born just because.
I’m certain it will make you stand a bit straighter, help you make brand decisions with a bit more conviction, and feel you have a purpose. Purpose is a good thing. It beats shiftless meandering hands down.
If you can’t think of a reason to exist beyond getting rich, you’re just sad.
The problem is, when people describe what they (or their brand) value, they inevitably come up with a list so pathetic, they may as well just put down ‘we love money’.
You’ve seen the list:
1. We value people
2. We’re passionate about service
3. We push for excellence!
The problem is, if you asked someone to put together a list of what they really value, they’d have a hard time squaring it with the brand they represent.
1. I love my family
2. I want to help my kids, my wife, and my friends
3. I want to die knowing I at least tried to make a difference
But let’s turn the tables. Let’s say you read an annual report, and discovered the people behind your favourite deodorant / mop / air freshener did everything they could to help their employees maintain a great family life? What if they played an active role in their community – beyond the ‘Hey let’s volunteer one day a year!’ PR stunt.
What would you think of that company? Good guys, eh? Sort of guys you want to support.
I saw an absolutely awesomely dumbass window display a while back. It read ‘On the Eighth Day, Chip invented Lululemon.’
I love Lulu. But mannnnnn, if you want to invite the wrath of God, put that kind of arrogance in your window.
In brands, as in life, I think it really pays to listen to others’ stories, rather than talk about yourself. The less I talk, the smarter people think I am.
In brands, as in life, it pays to listen to others’ stories, not talk about yourself.
And when I do talk, I like to talk about unfinished ideas. Get feedback. Put stuff out there that may seem hare-brained, but could be better if others just help me with their genius insights. People like genuine invitations to help and brainstorm. No arrogance. Just enthusiasm for making things better.
Vulnerability is disarming. Humility is in short supply. Make them your differentiator.
I’m a big Bowie fan. Yes, I love his music, and the way he keeps pushing beyond his comfort zone and challenging fans. But there’s more. From what I understand, Bowie has never lost his enthusiasm for digging into the cool stuff other people are doing. He’s shamelessly curious and wide-eyed.
If you put this in a brand context, don’t you love brands that aren’t afraid of trying new stuff? Think of the flak Apple took when they jumped beyond computers into readers, and music. No, of course you don’t. All we remember is their wild success and the richness that exploring new territory lent their brand.
Don’t you love brands that aren’t afraid of trying new stuff?
A note of caution here. Leaning and trying new things is wonderful. But be prepared to fail. Not every new thing will fit with your brand personality. The point is, it’s better to put a clanker out every once in a while. Much better than being too afraid to try.
If you show up 364 days a year in khakis and a Brooks Brothers shirt, then show up on the 365th day in rubber fetish wear, people will think the cheese slipped off your cracker.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful to have an open mind and try new things. But it’s spooky to behave one way, then radically shift your behaviour. Schizophrenic, I believe they call it.
How does this apply to your brand?
I was doing a workshop with a group of execs a while back. We were on the topic of company values. One exec spoke up “You want to see a company’s values – check the staff toilet!”
It’s true. If a brand is all love and happiness when they talk to consumers, but treats their employees like dirt, that’s schizo. So check your staff toilet – does it reflect the same values as your show window?
You want to see a company’s values – check the staff toilet!
I bet Kathie Lee Gifford wishes her endorsement team had thought of this before they had her shill sweatshop goods.
Transparency is probably the second most overused term in current brand lingo – right behind authentic.
But jeez, it’s hard to tell the world everything about everything you do. I mean, nobody’s perfect and do we really have to tell folks how we had to lay off all those people because we got our projections wrong?
Transparency is hard. But people value it immensely. It shows vulnerability, imperfection, and all those traits that will enable humans to beat the cyborgs in the Singularity Wars.
Try it. You’ll find the more you do it, the more you’re rewarded. And the more people share right back.
I hate politicians. Everybody hates politicians.
We all hate politicians because they’re on point, scripted by pollsters, and absolutely devoid of spontaneity.
Chances are, your brand wasn’t created by pollsters. It was created by real people with a credit card and a napkin pitch. People who trusted in their intuition.
Chances are, your brand wasn’t created by pollsters.
The problem is, this spontaneity gets drummed out of brands the more successful they become. Preserving brand equity becomes Job One. That means taking as few risks as possible. Helllooo, Kodak.
I hope so. But I’m certain I gave short shrift to some points, or forgot others completely.
If so, let me know. Heck, I’m only human.
This story first appeared on Linkedin June 25th, 2015.
In this program, host Ian Jessop and I discuss how brands often leapfrog brand strategy and story to arrive at social media tactics…with disastrous results.
If you’re in charge of brand strategy for your company, it’s well worth a listen.
For those of you unfamiliar with my book Didn’t See It Coming, this podcast should help.
It’s the first in an ongoing series, pulled from my monthly radio appearances on CFAX radio. In each appearance, I discuss a headlining topic, and how it relates to futureproofing brands.
This first podcast is a merry romp through the death of old advertising and the chaos of what’s replacing it.
All kidding aside, host Ian Jessop and I lay the groundwork for podcasts to come by chatting about the book’s inspiration, the iterations of advertising I’ve experienced in my career, and lessons for brands that want to thrive into the future.
Look for a fresh podcast monthly!
I had a fascinating conversation this morning with Guy Dauncey, a futurist and big brain in the sustainability field. Guy is writing his latest book, a novel that projects us into the Vancouver of 2040. His vision isn’t apocalyptic – it describes how we as a civilization finally came around to embrace ‘new’, and turn it into post-fossil-fuel prosperity. Inspiring stuff, especially when the vision is supported by the science Dauncey painstakingly assembles.
I’m a marketer with a penchant for projects that, more often than not, trumpet new and sustainability. I’ve come to believe my field has a surprisingly uncomfortable relationship with new.
Why is this?
In a nutshell, new thinking scares big clients. It scares them because it may scare their consumers, and that may drive those consumers to the competition.
To avoid freaked-out consumers, big clients planning a communications campaign go through exhaustive research to gauge consumer reactions to insights, copy, layout, finished ads, everything.
Marketing has an uncomfortable relationship with new.
Three things come out of research.
First, you get ads with all the interesting, pointy bits sanded off. If you’re testing for approval with the largest possible number of people, you’re going to have to delete things that could offend anyone. That’s a lot of cutting. What you’re left with is about as exciting as, well, 90 percent of the boring ads you ignore on your screen.
Second, research generates a stack of information the CMO can cover his or her butt with in case the campaign tanks. And, yes, they do tank on a regular basis. Remember, you’re ignoring that 90 percent of boring ads on your screen.
And the final thing that comes from big research? A big paycheck for research companies. Go figure.
This culture of caution makes big advertising feel out of touch and irrelevant. Natalie Zmuda of Advertising Age described it best in her story “Ad Campaigns Are Finally Reflecting Diversity of US”. Zmuda profiled a raft of new commercials by big brands like GM and Coke that aired during the Sochi Olympics and 2014 Super Bowl. These spots showed mixed-race families, same-sex couples, people in wheelchairs, and even, yes, Muslims.
Zmuda’s point is that while these images of diversity might be perfectly “so what?” for consumers, on Madison Avenue they were trumpeted as a great leap forward, an “All New!” in a flashing starburst. As Zmuda writes, “Marketing experts say this is the moment that historians and social commentators will likely declare a tipping point for advertising enlightenment in the years to come. But, in truth, adland is late to the game, and plenty of progress is still to be made.”
Diversity is “so what?” for consumers, but in ads it’s seen as revolutionary.
Unfortunately, despite the upheaval threatening the ad business, big agencies and their big clients aren’t going to stop the vanilla messaging madness. If anything, the more the palace gates are stormed by new ideas, the more big brands will draw the velvet curtains and retreat to the salon of low-risk thinking.
Of course, there’s a bright side. For every dinosaur, there are dozens of mammals scurrying underfoot. Upstart companies that don’t have the budget to research their communication into oblivion. Companies that have little to lose and everything to gain. Companies that are letting their fans do the communicating for them, instead of entrusting the message to big agency bureaucracy. Companies that don’t care if they alienate a few folks, as long as the consumers they want are crazy happy.
Big brands may be dabbling with diversity now. Benetton was splashing it on billboards around the world with its United Colors of Benetton campaign…in 1986.