The Campaign Essay: Death of the salesmen

Advertising has become so dominated by debt, mega-mergers and supergroups that it appears to have forgotten its reason for being. It's time to return to selling things, Tim Delaney, chairman of Leagas Delaney, believes.

When I started in advertising I quickly became addicted to the thrill of doing something that had an effect, often a spectacular one. I took the brief for Timberland in a box room and was soon visiting a four-floor office building, Adidas talked to Leagas Delaney when it was going out of business - today, as you've probably noticed, it's not.

Of course there are plenty of people who have had these experiences and, on occasion, still do. Advertising can really change things, and therein lies its great magic. But I can't help but feel it's doing so less often.

Which leads me to wonder why. Here are some thoughts which I hope will stimulate debate and encourage us collectively to address what I think is a real and troubling trend.

An illuminating place to start might be the heady days of the late 90s. The dot-com, telecoms and tech boom flooded the market with bottomless budgets, overnight launches and a cavalier attitude to communication.

The belief was that advertising should be deployed purely to drive awareness, leaving a dizzying variety of new channels to drive the message home (if, indeed, there was any substance to sell behind all the gloss).

This was the definitive era of style over content, but my view is that it only accelerated a growing industry obsession with gloss over grit.

Production techniques are ever more advanced, even before an agency gets into "production" in earnest. We can all make a concept look like a glossy finished ad when it is first presented but are we glossing over the need to think hard about compelling, competitive propositions? Certainly the finished product will look great, but looking great alone doesn't sell products and position brands.

This is also an era where design has primacy. I have nothing against design, quite the opposite, but it has to be part of a complete conversation between brand and consumer. The dotcom launches and some subsequent brand launches do a great job of creating a look and spending big media money to make it ubiquitous, but I find the subsequent "selling messages" just wash over me. The problem is that as a potential consumer I don't know what the advertising wants me to do.

I should pause at this point and make it clear that I'm not saying there is no role for "brand" advertising. Of course we have to engage hearts as well as heads, of course it is often the best way to win the preference of an increasingly savvy consumer, of course it's a great way to keep existing customers reassured, of course you have to build a brand's values as well as its attributes.

What I am saying is that the balance is out of kilter - I still want our industry to be judged by its ability to build relationships with consumers that sell things.

One of the keys to this, I believe, is the ability to challenge and work with clients to find really compelling propositions. Historically agencies have played an active role in this partnership of equals but I think we've become far less challenging about what we are asked to advertise.

How often now do agencies question the value of advertising a message that is generic or "me too"? How often do we really push ourselves and our clients to find something unique?

This partnership of equals, this confidence to question and challenge requires the contribution of agencies to be highly valued by clients.

The trend here, as has been much commented on in recent years, is not encouraging. It's a potentially vicious circle as agency value is squeezed by various factors and agencies react by becoming increasingly pragmatic.

You don't have to look very far to see this squeezing of value. DuPont recently tendered purely on the basis of price and there are now more than 100 full-time purchasing controllers who have a say in the appointment of agencies. Three years ago there were fewer than ten.

As an industry, we often don't help ourselves when it comes to demonstrating our own value. I sense a climate of fear developing at a time when there's never been a bigger requirement to be brave.

Times are pretty tough for agencies right now and the business is ever more driven by shareholder requirements to deliver numbers on a monthly basis. For the mega-groups there is a requirement to be pragmatic.

On top of this you have an agency landscape that has never been more competitive - everyone is looking over their shoulder as clients find themselves with a dazzling array of names to choose from, all of them, no doubt, offering temptingly competitive fees.

Against this backdrop, I wonder how many agencies are still prepared to question the competitiveness of a product proposition and fight for something better. More fundamentally, how many agencies are going to want their reward and tenure of the account to be tied to commercial results?

In this climate it's easy to blame the client community for its supposed lack of respect for what we do. But, ultimately, it's our challenge to earn that respect again, to prove in our work that advertising can still sell, can still achieve commercial transformation.

I believe the start-point for this has to be a collective reassertion of advertising's ability to sell. Yes, there is an array of new channels to consumers, and we have to embrace them for what they can do, but this does not suddenly mean advertising can only affect brand measures such as awareness. It doesn't mean advertising is only there to "tee up" more direct methods. Great campaigns can still do the job of selling.

Great campaigns sell through the art of skilful persuasion and advocacy.

Here I believe the role of words, of copy, is in danger of being forgotten.

The simple presentation of a competitive advantage can often be achieved most powerfully with the right set of words.

I talked earlier about the way technology now enables us to achieve a high level of polish. This is happening right from the beginning of the creative development process. We can all show something replete with brand values and visual branding at the first review, but in doing so we're discouraging ourselves and our clients from interrogating the message itself. We have to get back to the heart of the proposition - will it sell (however beautifully it can be dressed up)?

To answer that (literally) million-dollar question we have to engage more fully in the commercial issues faced by our clients. We have to get to grips with what will actually "bath the baby" rather than what might make our Millward Brown graphs go in the right direction.

And this is in areas where our clients can help us by recognising the need for access and engagement at board level. The business of developing campaigns is being done at a more and more junior level, arguably further and further from the sharp end of commercial realities. Nobody benefits when the chief executive complains that the campaign he had little knowledge of didn't affect his or her business.

My personal experience tells me that campaigns sell hardest when I'm able to engage with company owners and leaders. I'm not naive enough to think this can always be the case, but I do believe we have to force the importance of the work we do up the organisation, taking our day-to-day clients with us. With the average tenure of a marketing director being less than 14 months, too many marketing people have moved on before the consequences of their decisions have had an effect. From time to time we might upset the structural status quo within marketing departments, but it has to be a risk worth taking.

In fact, it's not really a risk - the real risk is producing campaigns that don't achieve anything and fuel criticism of creative ivory towers and commercial naivety. (By the way, the best creative people always want to change things and positively desire exposing the right clients and the real issues.)

The flip side of this is that agencies will then have to take real responsibility for the work they produce. If we force the issue of client access we have no excuse for not delivering. I've talked to a number of prospective clients recently and this issue of responsibility comes up consistently. We have to be judged by commercial change and be prepared to learn lessons if campaigns don't deliver.

The issue of media is also key to the creation of advertising that sells.

For many years I've often felt suspicious of certain media plans or media choices and their ability to make a real difference. Good media selection is fundamental to producing "selling advertising". Knowing when to buy dominant media channels and large spaces takes guts, but is sometimes essential in creating the impact to sell.

I think there are some signs of real change in this area with a collective recognition that we have to do more to find creative and media solutions that really cut through.

We also have to work harder with the messaging itself. It's been popular for some time now to say there are no more Unique Selling Propositions, that few products or services have rational advantages, that seeking those rational advantages is pointless anyway due to the speed at which they can be copied. While this may sometimes be true, it can't become a reason to give up searching for the differences or finding a proposition that creates the appearance of difference.

If we all just give up on finding these pearls, Orange would never have launched per-second billing and Volvo would never have pointed out that one of their cars goes faster than a Ferrari.

I still passionately believe in the power of advertising to sell and I'd love to see the industry return its focus to this most fundamental job. Compared with the business I started in, I think we've become a bit too interested in other things.

The industry is now dominated by companies that don't really look like advertising agencies at all - they have become passionless factories, churning out quarterly reports and making a small number of people very rich. They are driven by shareholders and the constant pressure of debt (which has now reached more than $9 billion collectively for the biggest international networks).

Clearly there's nothing wrong with financial professionalism (or personal wealth for that matter) but we have to look past the bureaucracies, the titles, the bonuses, the mega-mergers - all the things that stop us thinking about making compelling advertising that sells.

As an industry we still have the talent and the tenacity to do this. So let's get back to what advertising was invented to do in the first place - to sell things. If we can do this and transform more of the businesses we work with, we will no doubt transform our own business for the better.

If you have an opinion on this or any other issue raised on Brand Republic, join the debate in the Forum here.