In this age of web 2.0, user-generated content and "bottom-up creativity", those who make the case for centralised global advertising often seem to be swimming against the tide.
"Let the markets be free, to do what they want to do, to have a good time," the cry goes up. Let creative ideas blossom, from Mumbai to Manhattan.
Stalinist central planning with head office telling its subsidiaries how they should talk to "their" consumers is an approach that is unzeitgeisty. Unsexy. Un-now. All the things that advertising strives not to be.
Global campaigns, the thinking goes, are creatively hamstrung by the need to be all things to all men.
As a result, they are the advertising equivalent of a Holiday Inn Express. Functional, but forgettable. Inoffensive, but uninspiring. The lowest common denominator made celluloid, print and digital. A safe option for the terminally risk-averse. (It remains to be seen whether the recent, extremely belated "flight from risk" in financial markets is a trend that will spread to adland.)
Oh yes, and of course the network offices are so much happier creating their own ideas than babysitting someone else's.
But that's not to say, of course, that, from the advertiser's point of view, the global approach is completely without its merits.
From a financial point of view (oops, there we go again, being unsexy), it is obviously cheaper to develop one set of creative and then roll it out worldwide. Given the uncertain outlook for the world economy, this is an argument that is gaining traction by the day.
A global approach is also faster, and simpler to implement. And as people travel the world more and more - physically or virtually - they are exposed to the same brand in different markets, and they should get the same experience. If you want to build a global brand, a global campaign seems the most obvious way to do it.
It seems like the age-old battle between creativity and cost-effectiveness - the bean-counters versus the bohemians, round 1,001.
But really, there is no reason it has to be this way. No reason why the standard of creativity expected of a global campaign should be lower than for a domestic campaign. In fact, if anything, the reverse should be true.
Every ad starts with an insight (that is, a consumer need) and a proposition (that is, a way that the product fulfils this need). If the supposed insight does not hold true for your target consumers in certain markets - and so the need the product purports to serve does not really exist - then of course the advertising based on it is not likely to succeed.
Likewise, if the proposition is poor - that is, the product fails to show how it meets this need - the ad is probably doomed to fail.
But this is as true in one market as it is in many. If the planners, market researchers and marketing strategists can find an insight and develop a proposition that is relevant to potential customers around the world, then a single creative concept should be able to convey this to all their potential customers around the world.
In other words, effective global advertising starts, just like any effective advertising does, with understanding your consumers.
Admittedly, there will be some cases where consumers' requirements of a product differ from country to country. But for most products, they will not do so. It is likely that the reasons why somebody buys a can of Coke, or chooses a PlayStation3 in preference to an Xbox 360, are fairly similar all over the world.
The same brief could, of course, be given to different agencies in different countries. But presumably, the advertiser has selected its lead agency for a reason, and believes that this agency can solve a given brief as well, if not better, than any other. So why would they not give this agency the brief globally?
Of course, the concept they come up with will have to be flexible enough to be adapted for other countries. But here again, the story is not so very different to advertising for one market; any decent concept should have the versatility to be campaignable.
A good idea can be adapted to emphasise different benefits, or push different products in a range, without diluting the essence of the brand or changing its positioning. So why can it not be adapted for other countries?
This adaptation needs to be carried out sensitively. It is a skilled job in itself, the importance of which is often underestimated (if not disregarded entirely). But there is a danger of advertising creatives becoming overly precious about their work.
Voyna y Mir has survived the transition to War and Peace and kept its status as a classic of world literature. The Bible has shaped the course of a European civilisation largely unable to read Hebrew and Ancient Greek. So it is pretty arrogant to presume that a mere press ad defies translation.
If an ad has a clear proposition, based on a truthful insight and compellingly expressed, it should be able to connect with audiences around the world. If an ad does not tick all those boxes, then the people responsible for it should probably be in another line of work.
So the challenge when developing global campaigns is not to write an ad that can be translated. It's to write an ad that's worth translating.
- Guy Gilpin is the managing director at Mother Tongue Writers.