When Campaign and Accenture asked some of the UK's top marketing directors to get together over dinner to discuss some of the things that concern them, we expected to hear a lot about recession, about margin pressures and about how to engage in the current climate.
What we got was a timely reminder of what marketing in any economic environment should be - a focus on basics, on the brand and the customer - and of what the role of agency suppliers should be in helping advertisers achieve those aims.
Those around the table believe investment in marketing must be made a priority, and could even be the point of difference that dictates whether a brand survives or falls when the going gets tough.
Andrew Nebel, the commercial director of Barnardo's, sums up the consensus with his assertion that Warren Buffett is not the only one who thinks now is a good time to invest. "Hold your nerve, spend your way out of trouble and outspend your competitors, and I think you will come out of it a lot stronger. The brands that dare to be different are the ones that will come out ahead," was an opinion shared by all.
What the customer wants
As Jane Frost, the individuals customer director at HM Revenue & Customs, says, up until recently, it's been relatively easy for companies to make money for next to no effort. This, she adds, means that some brands have "forgotten their customers".
And though the marketers recognised that communication in a tough economic environment can be hard to manage (particularly for brands such as banks), they also felt that communication must be maintained to reassure customers that companies are trying to address their concerns.
Keith Moor, the director of brand and communications at Abbey, says research with customers shows that they want the brands they know and trust to be saying something to them. "People are looking for guidance," he says. "They feel that nobody is really saying very much. But they are actually expecting to be led in a certain direction - and are looking to brands to give them answers."
As Frost adds, the thing that customers won't forget is neglect - if brands go away when times are tough, then today's savvy consumer is not going to be interested when they eventually come back.
Why you can't afford to ignore online
A new-media environment is one thing that, in some ways, can make communication with customers easier. British Gas, for example, sends out around 150 million pieces of mail every year, and is now using text and e-mail to tell its customers about price increases - or decreases - before they read about them in the papers.
Chris Jansen, the managing director, Premier Energy, strategy and commercial director of British Gas, says: "There's a big focus for us on how online will change our business. It's the perfect antidote to a lot of the issues that exist in the utilities sector. We might end up reducing our marketing spend by taking money out of advertising and putting it into how we drive our online delivery, for example."
But a changing media environment offers as many challenges as it does solutions. Some, like Will Harris, the Nokia marketing director, feel positive about them: he says he expects to see what he terms "the most exciting rebirth of the media industry ever".
"All the old conventions are disappearing," he adds. "When we come out of this, people will not view media in the way they do now. Those people will look at TV like we look at long copy ads and think God, aren't they quaint. It is apocalyptic."
The ability of consumers to communicate in new ways, to share opinions and experiences of brands, means, he says, that companies have to cede ownership of their products to the people that consume them.
Cadbury's "gorilla", and more recently "eyebrows", are two campaigns that have taken that new ability by the scruff of the neck, using a traditional TV format to create something that its consumers not only watch and share, but even interact with.
Philip Rumbol, Cadbury's UK marketing director, says Cadbury paid for 30 per cent of the UK population to see "gorilla", but 60 per cent ended up seeing it. "The value of people playing with it, creating new versions of it, is immense," he adds. Wispa, another Cadbury brand, was brought back "by public demand", after thousands of people joined a Facebook campaign to demand its return. On an investment of less than £1 million, Rumbol cites retail sales of £30 million in seven weeks as proof that the ability to listen to your customer and respond fast can bring real business benefits.
Do you need to give up control?
Harris goes so far as to say that he doesn't think he owns the Nokia brand anymore, and that how people view it is largely out of his control. "At any one time, there are millions of people discussing our brands online. Those comments are doing more damage to our brands than we can get over," he adds.
But many in the room felt the marketing director still retains a role in directing that conversation. James Boulton, the HSBC marketing director, points to the difference between ownership and control. "There is less control and that is a joyful thing," he says. "But you can control the brand's direction."
And there was a suggestion that the changing media environment is driving marketing directors to take control of the product, not just its marketing, and to get more involved in business decisions. Frost says: "At the moment, we have a necessity, but not a value to our organisation. But if we can influence what matters to our customers, we can add value."
The big idea is as important as ever
Frost believes that the power of advertising is undiminished despite the rise of online. "It's a complete load of cobblers that advertising is dead," she says. "If you want a brand with integrity then the big idea is key - how you interpret that idea across the various media now available is just window dressing."
The big idea, and the emotional connection that consumers can have with brands as a result, was something every marketing director felt they had to increase emphasis on. In a market where trust in brands, particularly those in sectors such as banking and utilities, is in danger of being lost, making it clear what your brand stands for is one thing that no company can afford to compromise.
Rumbol, the man behind some of the most emotionally engaging advertising campaigns of the past couple of years, warns of the danger of reverting back to logic in the current climate and the need to focus on the most powerful thing you can say about your brand.
David Radford, the group marketing director at Liverpool Victoria, adds that recent examples of campaigns that create an emotional connection with a brand - such as T-Mobile's "dance" and Virgin Atlantic's "still red hot" have shown that there is a competitive advantage to be gained in promoting the emotional over the functional.
And although there was a consensus that value is important to customers, at a time when everyone is offering value deals, there's also a need to do something different to stand out from the crowd.
Honda is another advertiser that has long relied on emotions rather than on product details to differentiate itself from its competitors. Ian Armstrong, the brand's manager of customer communications, explains: "For the past 50 years, the Western ad model has been based on persuasion. Our understanding of how the brain works has moved on so much since then, but many advertisers haven't taken any of that on board. Your brain makes an emotional response before it makes a rational one, but in marketing we still seem to work the other way around."
The problem with agencies
Can agencies help? Or are they old-fashioned, unwilling to change, even unfit to be considered the business partners they want to be? It depends on the agency. Armstrong, whose ad agency is Wieden & Kennedy, says it's taken a while for agencies to realise the seriousness of the economic situation. But, he adds, they are now changing, and suggesting new ways of remuneration, such as payment by results.
Harris, who shares the same agency but also works with JWT, says he has a very different experience with his two agencies. One, he says, is very aware of the changing environment, and is also very willing to reinvent itself. The other is only now just about starting to realise that there might, as he puts it, be something other than advertising to work on.
There is a frustration, too, with a media owner and agency system that, in the advertisers' minds, fails to reflect the changing media picture and the way that consumers now interact with a brand.
Justin Basini, the vice-president, head of brand marketing at CapitalOne, says that he is well aware that his customers take the messages they form their opinions on from a wide variety of different media. "But I constantly get frustrated that people come to us telling us their medium is the best way to get across our message - that's just not reflected by the consumer reality," he says.
Frost describes what she calls "the production debacle" as "a watershed that raised a huge issue of trust that still exists today". If agencies want a partnership relationship, then they need to be transparent. "I still feel there are agencies operating on a 'what you don't need to know' basis," she says.
Nebel, who works with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says he puts an enormous amount of trust in his agencies. But, he adds, if you let the procurement department dictate the terms of your agency relationship then you only have yourself to blame if all you get is exactly what you pay for.
While the marketers agreed that procurement should come in at the back, rather than the front, end of the process, they were also aware that the ideal is not always the case. And there was also sympathy for the predicament that procurement can put agencies in. As Nebel says: "The worst thing we could do to our agencies in recession is to exploit the weakness they are in because that will destroy trust. Just as we should take this opportunity to reinforce the relationship with customers, so should we do the same with our partner agencies."
- Keith Moor, director of brand and communications, Abbey
- Ivor Falvey, group commercial director, Haymarket Brand Media
- Andrew Nebel, commercial director, Barnardo's
- Larissa Vince, acting deputy editor, Campaign
- Justin Basini, vice-president, head of customer initiative management and brand marketing, CapitalOne
- Ian Armstrong, manager, customer communications, Honda (UK)
- David Radford, group marketing director, Liverpool Victoria
- Caroline Marshall, executive editor, Haymarket Brand Media
- Philip Rumbol, UK marketing director, Cadbury
- George Patten, global commercial and business development director, Accenture
- Chris Jansen, managing director, Premier Energy division, British Gas
- Claire Beale, editor, Campaign
- James Boulton, marketing director, HSBC
- Adam Swann, senior director - media sciences, UK & Ireland, Accenture
- Will Harris, marketing director, Nokia
- Jane Frost, individuals customer director, HM Revenue & Customs
- James Walker, head of media science, Accenture
A Campaign debate, in association with Accenture.