Close-Up: Are clients becoming too cautious?

A leftfield approach to ads can pay dividends but, for many clients, it is too risky.

Old Spice's "the man your man could smell like" was a popular winner at the Cannes Advertising Festival.

Wieden & Kennedy Portland had taken an ailing brand and helped to dramatically turn around its fortunes with a humorous and cleverly executed spot.

The ad was an example of a client putting its faith in its advertising agency and being prepared to take the necessary risks to push through with a campaign that it believed in.

The same week that Old Spice was cleaning up on the Croisette, Campaign revealed a risque ad for Cadbury Flake, which never saw the light of day after the client canned the spot for fear of it polarising consumers.

Instead, the client ditched its incumbent agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, and turned to Fallon, which devised a "safer" spot for the brand.

And just last week, the Conservatives were also thrust into the spotlight after it emerged that the party had buried a series of ads during the run-up to the General Election, deeming them "too edgy" to run.

The ads - seen by Campaign - would have marked a refreshing change in approach, but it seems that the party simply could not risk a backlash.

Cadbury and the Conservatives may be the ones to make the headlines for changing tack at the last minute, but it seems that the pair are far from being in the minority when it comes to exercising a higher degree of caution in this climate.

With so much at stake and return on investment being scrutinised more intently than ever before, are clients simply too wary to veer too far from the norm?

"Behind all great ad campaigns, there's usually a client that has made a risky decision at some point in the process," Mark Hunter, the executive creative director of TBWA\London, says. "But I just don't think enough clients notice that and, even if they do, they're not willing to put their necks on the line and take those risks themselves."

It's a wonder to many that this is the case. When risks have been taken and brands have made a creative and forceful effort to shake up their advertising, the world has been rewarded with drumming gorillas, Russian meerkats and former NFL stars with "tickets to that thing you love".

One suggestion is that all of these brands had got themselves into such serious problems that the client didn't have many other options.

"Even 'gorilla' was a strategy aimed at reversing some fairly serious perception issues," Emma Janson-Smith, the head of planning at Meteorite, points out.

Unless a brand really needs to change its image, why would they see the worth in straying too far from what they know works?

18 Feet & Rising's chief executive, Jonathan Trimble, suggests that clients' inability to control how their campaign performs online is also partly to blame.

"The typical pre-testing model is at an ebb, given how much value comes from campaigns igniting on-line," he says. "So clients won't want to do something too risky if they're so unsure about how it will work."

One executive creative director of a major UK agency reckons that the process of getting risky creative work to run is the big problem.

"Clients really have to fight for work that they believe in, and so few are prepared to do that," he says. "And worse still, agencies recognise this and are happy to play the game rather than risk creating tension and putting their position on the account under threat."

SUIT - Jonathan Trimble, chief executive, 18 Feet & Rising

"I am not sure clients are any more or less risk-averse than they ever were. They've always lived at the sharp end of accountability. Some with more creative flair than others, but this remains the case.

"If creativity is under threat, we have to look to agencies first. In the main, agencies are worried about losing clients and will prefer to appear solid and reliable, not experimental.

"This is nuts. We know the recession begs for and rewards inventiveness. It's the right time to be over-confident about creativity, to offer it up front and centre, and as often as we can. Only then can we expect clients to follow suit."

CREATIVE - Mark Hunter, executive creative director, TBWA\London

"I honestly believe that there isn't a single thing that has a greater impact on good work than a brave client, but right now I don't see a lot of them out there.

"In fact, the majority of the stuff that really can be considered risky at the moment tends to be desperation disguised as bravery.

"Work like Old Spice actually came about as a last-ditch attempt at survival, but why should it take a moment of desperation to get the really great work?"

PLANNER - David Golding, planning partner, Adam & Eve London

"Clients aren't being particularly cautious right now, but they are being increasingly responsible. They've realised that there's no way in a regulated media environment that they can be as provocative as the endless home-made films spread across the web every day. So why try?

"Instead, clients are seeing advertising as a way to engage audiences with quality and inspiring brand messages that sit well alongside crazy user-generated content, rather than trying to replicate it or outdo it.

"Clients always want creative advertising ideas; it's just that what is deemed refreshingly creative today may no longer be the crazy or the risque."

PLANNER - Emma Janson-Smith, head of planning, Meteorite

"Certainly, last year saw the focus on ROI intensify but did this mean that advertisers took no risks? I don't think so. After all, one man's cautious is another man's risky.

"For the advertisers who have relied on TV to deliver their numbers for the past two decades, shifting this budget to interactive channels is as brave a move.

"A 'risky' idea borne out of a strong strategy that requires the subversion of convention is not actually that risky. The lauded Comparethemarket.com campaign has solid strategic foundations and, as a result, is reaping the business and brand rewards."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.

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