Adland's biggest danger is the well-reasoned argument for mediocrity
A view from Shaun McIlrath

Adland's biggest danger is the well-reasoned argument for mediocrity

Agencies need to stop relentlessly selling advertising regardless of the client's issue.

The most dangerous thing in advertising is the well-reasoned argument for mediocrity. 

Often, it will come from the smartest person in the room. An articulate defence of the status quo, welcomed by most because it absolves them of the responsibility of actually doing anything difficult or creative.

It achieves next to nothing. Category work that enables those involved to feel like they’ve done something – other than waste a budget and undermine a brand.  

Let me just log that and move on. 

There’s been a lot of chat recently about two things. “Redefining creativity” and “selling”.  

Let’s start with selling. There’s a belief that, as an industry, we’ve forgotten our purpose. The insinuation is that we’re poncy media types – academics and would-be artists, who feel that selling is somehow beneath us. 

Now, I’ve been in adland a long time and there’s no doubt that wankers like this exist. And they can wrong-foot their agencies for a time. But they are usually short-lived, because no agency could continue to function, nor should it, if it doesn’t help its clients hit their commercial targets. 

However, at this point, the debate about “selling” dovetails into the one about “redefining creativity”, because both lead directly to the same big question: are we doing enough to help our clients reach their commercial goals and could we be doing more? 

Don't just sell, solve

Today, our clients’ creative needs are much broader than just advertising. So, like them, we need to acknowledge and obsess about all the reasons consumers won’t engage with a company. Our job, then, is bigger than just selling, it is to use creativity to help remove these barriers – to help the consumer buy. 

It’s easy to write that off as semantics. But easy doesn’t get you anywhere worthwhile, so please, bear with me.

Selling is when you act solely on the behalf of the vendor. But brands are better served, and we are better servants, when we act on behalf of the consumer.

Helping people buy requires a broader definition of creativity. Great creative is more than just a good ad – it is any ingenious idea that effectively neutralises a barrier to purchase or creates a reason to buy. 

Yes, awareness or preference may well be part of this but, depending on the category, there will be a host of other barriers: price, distribution, customer experience, value, ethics, internal culture, ESG policy etc. The product or service might just be really poor. 

Today, agencies would still attempt to “sell” it, because that’s how they make money. But, by widening our skill sets and bringing in the disciplines above, we can redeploy what would be a wasted production and media investment to improve the offering and still profit. 

This is important, because, today, all aspects of a brand’s behaviour are visible, and if there is a disconnect between an advertising artifice and the reality, it creates distrust, not just of the company but of advertising per se.

People don't need what advertising is, they need what it could be

If we are to remain relevant, we must realise that we are not just in the business of creating better advertising, we are in the business of helping to create better, more competitive consumer propositions – better companies. 

Focusing only on selling, leads you to simply bombard people with more messages rather than addressing the real issues. 

It makes us poor communicators, because it ignores a fundamental tenet of communication – that it works both ways. 

Focusing on helping people buy is about marshalling the creative potential within the client and agency organisations and homing in laser-like on being more valuable to the consumer. It is about re-injecting consumer-centricity and creativity back into the hearts of brands to make them more competitive. 

But, ironically, we can’t deliver that until we stop blindly selling our own product and consider what our customers need. We are at our least relevant and most obnoxious when relentlessly selling advertising, regardless of the client’s issue. The rise of the consultancies is no accident.

Agencies’ “purpose” has always been to act as creative intermediaries between a brand and consumers. But our creativity cannot simply be marginalised to product propaganda, nor should it be used solely to affect the behaviour of the consumer. It must affect the behaviour of the brand. It must work in both directions.

So, as we begin to creep back to our offices in the coming weeks, I’d ask you to question what you’re coming back to. Question everything about your agency. Question its ambition, its business model, its definition of creativity. Because fate has offered us up a unique opportunity to evolve. Not just to do advertising – to change it.  

But challenging the status quo involves risk and real effort. And a lot of people won’t like that. So they’ll ignore it, or rail against it and eloquently explain why you should stick to your guns. 

And what they will say will sound like it makes sense. 

I repeat, the most dangerous thing in advertising is the well-reasoned argument for mediocrity.

Shaun McIlrath is chief creative officer at Iris

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