1. Should we be concerned about ad fraud?
Most concerns about advertising are about the impact of advertising on the public – and quite right too. Advertisers themselves are always thought to be the potential villains rather than the potential victims. Until recently, the only exception to this has been the invisible poster.
There are so many niceties and nuances about advertising that expecting absolutely everyone to be in absolute agreement on any one viewpoint is nearly always doomed to disappointment. But surely no-one could disagree with this: a poster, so designed and so positioned that nobody, not even those with the keenest sight and with time on their hands to pause and peer, can determine the brand being advertised, is an advertiser robbed.
Please do not tell me that no such posters exist. Take an hour’s drive around any urban area, as passenger rather than driver, and you’ll find half-a-dozen. These are not posters of debatable value. These are posters of zero value. They cost money to make and money to display, and they return nothing. Yet clients continue to pay for them.
It seems that the poster that no-one can read has now been joined by the internet ad, whose audience is almost entirely consisted of bots. And since bots don’t earn money or go shopping, their value to the advertiser is zero.
At a time when clients, driven by cost and powered by procurement, are counting the pennies as never before, it’s absurd that widespread speculation about ad fraud should go unanswered. An ad that fails to pay for itself because it fails to influence its audience is an unfortunate but accepted condition of advertising. An ad that fails to pay for itself because it never reaches an audience is commercial theft.
2. Do ‘health warnings’ at the bottom of ads work?
Of course. They’re not designed to be read; they’re designed to insure the advertiser against corrective action. If they read:
"Every fact in the above advertisement is a lie. Consumption of the featured product has been known to lead to impotence and the onset of goitre."
I bet no-one would notice.
3. My agency has made some brilliant ads over the past year but our procurement people are putting lots of pressure on me to review the ad market. Can I do this without upsetting my existing partners? Do such things always have to lead to a full pitch?
Sounds as if it’s high noon time down on your particular ranch. And if it isn’t, it should be. Just be certain that the shoot-out follows your rules and nobody else’s. This is what under no circumstances whatsoever you should be tempted to do:
• Tell your procurement people that of course you’re prepared to review the ad market – indeed, you were thinking exactly the same thing yourself – and, what’s more, you plan to do it comprehensively, objectively and, indeed, ruthlessly.
• Tell your agency that, as a sop to your procurement philistines, you’ve had to agree to a review but – strictly between yourselves – it will be a sham, a farce, a charade, a confection of a review, with the agency having absolutely nothing to fear.
Your procurement people, to whom you lied, will believe you. Your agency, to whom you told the truth, won’t. Within days, you’ll have totally lost control. Intermediaries will become overexcited, RFPs will be scattered around indiscriminately – and, nine months later, during which time your existing excellent agency will have contracted creative paralysis, the selection committee insisted on by your procurement people will formally appoint a perfectly ordinary agency that had come up with quite a nice slogan and would do it for cost.
Instead, confront your chief executive. Tell him you refuse to jeopardise the company’s future profits by destabilising your existing agency. Dump on his desk every bit of evidence that you, the IPA and the Advertising Association can find about the value of agencies and the real worth of long-term relationships. Finally (having prudently confirmed that he’s a patron of private education), ask your CEO whether he would take his daughter away from a brilliant school because he’d found a much cheaper one.
4. What is the one best piece of career advice you’ve received?
The only career advice I was ever given was that from my department head when I was sent off to New York to learn about the mysterious new advertising medium of television: "Get your hair cut and don’t wear suede shoes." I complied with both instructions – and stayed with the company for another 29 years. I suppose it must have been good advice.
5. I can’t remember the last time I watched regular TV. I skip ads online and have ad-blocker programs on my computer, and yet I still work in advertising. Am I a hopeless hypocrite?
Hypocrite’s not the right word.
Had Mary Whitehouse been a closet Penthouse subscriber, she would have been a hypocrite. A senior banker who publicly preaches the importance of corporate rectitude while knowingly laundering the profits of drug barons is, without question, a hypocrite. To be a bona fide hypocrite, you need to parade your righteous beliefs while actively flouting them.
From what you tell me, you’re not in principle opposed to advertising; you just don’t find advertisements very interesting so you choose not to watch them. This doesn’t make you a hypocrite. It does, however, make you slightly stupid – and may before long make you unemployable.
6. My chief executive is insisting that I ask agencies to pay for the right to pitch for my creative brief. I’ve told him it’s very bad practice but he’s adamant. What should I do?
I’m sorry you say "my creative brief". This suggests that you keep the marketing and advertising functions tightly clutched to your own chest and resent anyone else, including your CEO, from coming too close. This is always a mistake, not least because it encourages others – such as your CEO – to see marketing as just one of the spending departments that need to be constantly reined in. Procurement will see nothing but good business sense in demanding that potential suppliers pay for the right to compete to supply – and your CEO will applaud them for being hard-nosed and wish that marketing showed some of the same rigour.
If you’re going to dissuade your CEO from insisting on this venal practice, you’re going to have to take an immense risk. You’re going to have to tell your CEO about the nature of brands; about the critical need for intuition and talent in the successful pursuit of profit; about the incalculable value of agency partners who prize working on your business for reasons not entirely driven by mere money. You’re going to have to tell him that he’ll send out an unmistakable signal to all good agencies – "we are insensitive, unimaginative bastards" – and will thereby deny his brands access to priceless alchemy.
You won’t be able to prove the truth of anything you say. You’ll sound absurd. But if you sound as convinced and as passionate as you should be, my guess is your CEO, probably with a sly aside about your going native, will give you the benefit of the doubt. And, from now on, please, don’t keep marketing to yourself. The more it’s seen to drive the entire company, the safer you’ll be from ignorant interference.
7. How long should you stay at an agency before thinking about moving on?
You should think about leaving an agency not less than six months before it thinks about leaving you.
8. Is it time to stop using the word ‘digital’?
I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that digital resembles Japanese knotweed; it’s become ineradicably embedded in our language. Its greatest value is that it doesn’t mean anything. Or, rather, it can be used to mean just about anything. I’ve often wondered what the digital landscape looks like. Whole conferences are devoted to the subject and I still don’t know. Its main function seems to be making people like me feel hopelessly analogue.
9. There’s a campaign to get Coca-Cola to stop advertising for a year and spend its entire, multibillion-pound marketing budget on environmental concerns. Do you think Coke should do it?
Oh, yes. But only if Coca-Cola is certain that the publicity generated by this decision would have a more beneficial effect on sales, profits and reputation than if the marketing budget had been spent on conventional marketing. (The beneficial effect on the environment would, of course, be a great deal harder to evaluate but of less immediate interest to Coca-Cola.)
10. Do you ever worry that you won’t have any advice left to give?
All the time. But, luckily, people keep asking me the same questions.