OPINION: Why direct marketing won’t prove a cure-all for clients

Stan Symington says confusion between clients and agencies about the purpose of creativity has given direct marketing an undeserved business increase

Stan Symington says confusion between clients and agencies about the

purpose of creativity has given direct marketing an undeserved business


There’s a huge demand for bad advertising. Always has been, always will

be. So, naturally, there’s a matching supply. When demand increases, as

is happening now, so does supply. Clearly, this is a shared

responsibility between the buyers and sellers - clients and agencies.

Oddly, each blames the other. ‘Clients don’t understand creativity,’ the

agencies say. ‘Agencies don’t understand my business,’ clients say. In

fact, both criticisms are justified, but only serve to drive the two

sides further apart.

The problem is that the statements are equally true in reverse. Clients

don’t understand how the agency business works and agencies don’t

understand how creativity works.

Dissatisfied clients cite a lack of creativity as the main reason for

firing agencies while agencies claim that creativity is the main reason

for winning accounts.

No disagreement there. Unfortunately, the two sides are using the same

word to describe something that means different things to each side.

To a client, creativity is about impressing its customers so they buy a

product. To an agency, creativity is about impressing its customers so

they buy the agency.

Because agencies believe that creativity has a business purpose of its

own, they impose creative work on a client that is not directed

primarily at its target audience - so the resulting advertising has

only a random chance of influencing the actual customers.

The result, over the past 35 years, has been a constant and unproductive

tension between agencies and clients born of distrust and disrespect.

Each side seeks to manage the relationship by manipulating the other.

The client tries to predict and quantify the effect of advertising

through research, often attempting to measure the unmeasurable using

discredited techniques. The agency goes for creative hype about itself

helped by glamorous photographers, star name film directors, celebrities

and sheer production extravagance.

These have proved to be very damaging policies for the advertising

industry over the past decade - lavish production never guaranteed a

commercial’s effectiveness, for example.

The result is that advertising as an effective way of marketing products

is at an all-time low in the eyes of UK clients. Agencies enjoyed, and

abused, a golden era when London creativity ruled the world. Clients,

some old enough to know better, were propelled along on a new wave of

unbridled creative indulgence.

But the wave crashed on the rock of the recession. Now clients,

resentful of their impotence in the face of creative tyranny, and unable

to fall back on research to ‘control’ advertising, are being seduced by

the promised efficiency, among other disciplines, of direct marketing.

Direct mail seldom built a famous brand but it is now being deployed to

devalue several with clandestine efficiency. Television brand

advertising at least ensured that the brand remained in broad public


The irony is that advertising, with its profligacy and failure to use

creativity to sell its clients’ products, has been replaced in its

affections by an even more wasteful old tart - the mutton dressed as

lamb of direct marketing.

New technology can’t overcome old failings. No amount of money-off

coupons posted to housewives will convince kids of what their dads all

knew - Beanz Meanz Heinz. Quite the reverse. In the long run, mums will

question the premium that Heinz requires.

If advertising has become unaffordable for many clients nowadays, they

may soon discover that over-reliance on direct marketing for premium

brands can be death by a thousand cuts.

Stan Symington is the chairman of the Symington Company