Why clients buy so much bad work

Clients have a natural tendency toward the mediocre, Steve Harrison writes, but it is up to their agencies to help them choose outstanding creative advertising.

At Cannes this year, I was, for 45 minutes, the spectre at the feast. I gave a speech explaining that the great work on display at the Palais des Festivals was an aberration - the exception that proved the rule.

And the rule remains that for every award-winning piece of work bought by clients, 12 outstanding ideas get killed outright. The truth is, clients feel comfortable buying mediocre work. But why?

The first big barrier preventing them from buying better creative work is simply that there is no clear definition of what better creative work looks like. As many clients will tell you, what is good and what is bad is subjective; it is all a matter of opinion. But while we would all accept that, surely everyone must also accept that there are two, very different, kinds of opinion.

First, there is informed opinion, which comes from an understanding of the historical and commercial context in which the work has been produced. But there is also ill-informed opinion, which proceeds from little other than the personal likes and dislikes of the individual concerned.

You'd be amazed how much the latter seems to predominate. And how little so many clients know about the historical and commercial context in which their work is appearing. Let's start with history.

I recently ran a seminar for around 100 clients and took the opportunity to set them a little quiz. The first questions covered very basic direct marketing and advertising. For example, one asked them to complete the most famous direct response press headline ever written: "They laughed when I sat down at the piano..." Another asked them to name the agency that created the Volkswagen "lemon" ad.

The last questions were about direct marketing, and asked which agency produced the Tesco Clubcard work (the most successful CRM programme of the past five years) and the name of the Tesco marketing director who bought the campaign.

The results were alarming. Not one of the 100 or so clients answered more than two of the ten questions. Most handed in a blank piece of paper.

All of which begs the question, how can you give an informed opinion if you are looking at the subject in a historical vacuum? For example, if you need someone to recommend a restaurant, whose advice are you more likely to follow - a gourmand who for years has dined at everything from simple bistros to Michelin-starred restaurants, or someone who can only advise on the relative merits of the Whopper and the Big Mac?

Unfortunately, junk mail, like junk food, seems to suit modern tastes. Alan Tapp, a marketing lecturer at Bristol Business School, says: "There is a strong anti-intellectual culture in the UK. It isn't 'cool' to have expertise or historical context. I'm amazed at the indifference to the quotation often repeated by David Ogilvy: 'I have seen further because I have stood upon the shoulders of giants.'"

So much for historical background, but what about the commercial context? Well, that doesn't look too good either. After all, how can you get a firm grasp of your subject if you are constantly moving around?

According to Hugh Davidson, a visiting professor at Cranfield School of Management: "It has been a disease of marketers for decades that they think if they are not headhunted into a new job every 18 months, they have failed."

The situation is just as bad in the US. A survey by the recruitment company Spencer Stuart reported that only 14 per cent of chief marketing officers have been with their companies for more than three years. Half have been in their jobs only 12 months.

This constant churn affects even the biggest brands. According to the Harvard Business Review, Starbucks has "staffed and re-staffed" its head of marketing five times in seven years, while Coca-Cola has changed its chief marketing officer four times in six.

The problem is compounded by the fact that when marketers move, they often move into a completely different sector. It puts me in mind of Jeremy Bullmore's fictional press release: "Anglo-Galvanized announce the appointment of Clive Thrust as marketing manager, aggregates. He has previously held similar positions with Scottish Widows, Pedigree Petfoods, Rentokil and the Bristol Zoo."

And it gets worse. Not only are these poor souls arriving in their sectors with no experience but, nowadays, they are being put under enormous pressure to deliver from day one.

As Malcolm Earnshaw, the director-general of ISBA, once told Campaign: "Marketing directors are often hired in the context of a publicised crisis and the demand is for a quick fix. They need to be given time to invest in a big idea, but shareholders want immediate results."

As we all know, when clients look for a quick fix, it often leads to tactical work with no thought for brand building or longer-term development. Moreover, quick fixes usually call for the application of tried-and-tested techniques. The creative rationale tends to be: if it's worked before, let's just run it again; or if it appears to be working for the competition, why don't we just do the same?

The situation is exacerbated by the recent emergence of the all-powerful procurement division - which means everyone is feeling the heat.

According to a survey by the US-based management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton: "Higher expectations have driven reorganisation of marketing departments at nearly 70 per cent of all companies. But a major component of many such reorganisations - the position of the chief marketing officer - remains ill-defined."

Given their confusion and lack of knowledge, can marketing heads look to their bosses for guidance? Can, for example, someone on the board help them? Not if they work for one of the UK's FTSE-100 companies, they can't, because no-one on the board knows much about marketing either. Last time I looked, only four FTSE-100 companies had someone with marketing experience on their board.

If they can't get help from on high, they often turn to the rank and file. Indeed, we all know the dreaded words that have concluded many a creative presentation: "We'd just like to show it to a few people." At that moment, you know you'll never see the work in its current form again. And at that very moment you are left with a choice. You can curse the client for their lack of vision. Or you can see the world through their eyes.

I'd recommend the latter. I'd suggest we accept that the client's job has never been as complex. Their chief concerns are no longer limited to brand-identity guidelines, good TV commercials and rising recall test scores. They are under pressure as never before. Which means we really have no option but to step up. If we don't help them, then glittering events such as Cannes will become ever more divorced from the grim reality.

Steve Harrison is the managing partner and creative director of Harrison Troughton Wunderman


1. Stop selling bad work

A lot of agencies exploit the client's insecurity. They are only too happy to recycle their old formulae and cliches, secure in the knowledge that the client will cling to them like a commercial comfort blanket. Others pander to nervous clients by cutting costs and rushing work through the system. It is a false economy that the client will pay for in lost customers.

2. Be experts in marketing communications

Clients cannot be acquainted with all the principles of effective communication (they have enough other stuff to worry about). So we should be able to answer the following questions for them: what is an idea and what is its only function? What's the best viral idea ever? How do you define ambient advertising? What is the best planning idea of all time? How do you do integrated advertising? Why was "snowplough" so good?

3. Know your discipline inside out

If we gain clients' respect through our general knowledge, then we must earn their trust by proving our expertise in our own disciplines. For example, in direct marketing we must know things like: will an insert out-pull a press ad? What's an AB split, give an example and what did it prove? Why are skyscrapers better than pop-ups? Can you get a direct response from a billboard campaign? Name a brand built via direct mail?

4. Become your clients' corporate memory

If marketing directors are only around for a couple of years, we must be their corporate memory for them. We should write "brand books" explaining the brand idea and values. We should know how the competition positions and advertises itself. And we should keep a brand health record to tell the new marketing director what has worked in the past, what hasn't, and why.

5. Share your knowledge with the client

Get together with clients to explain your approach to creating better work. Run good ad/bad ad sessions at which they explain what they like and what they don't. Then use these sessions to explain the importance of the brief, the single-minded proposition, the consumer benefit, the idea that demonstrates or dramatises that benefit - and the importance of having the time you need to bring it all together properly.

6. Sell your work with vigour

There's an old adage that says good work sells itself. Believe me, it doesn't. When clients brief you, they already have an idea in their mind's eye of what the work is going to look like. Usually, they will be expecting work that is typical of the category. So when you present something that is unlike the norm, they will be surprised and uncomfortable. Be aware of this before you present and sell like hell when you meet them. Thereafter, give them all the help they need to sell it on through their organisation.

7. Establish some ground rules

Explain to the client that you need five days minimum for origination of a press ad, mailpack, radio spot, billboard etc. Make sure there is a signed-off brief for every piece of work - and that the brief has a single-minded proposition. Ensure that the creative director has the final decision on what is presented. Always present in person, never by fax or PDF. Present one idea. If the client baulks at this, present one agency recommendation and show other work that got you there.

8. Become obsessed with results

Never describe work that didn't work as "good". The whole point of creative work is competitive persuasion. If you have lost the competition in the marketplace, don't expect to win it at awards ceremonies. Make sure your client understands your passion for results. This will overcome their natural suspicion that we are silk-hatted dilettantes who don't understand business.

9. Suggest payment by results

If your clients are under pressure to deliver and if they are nervous about doing something different, reassure them by sharing the risk you are asking them to take. Tell them you want to be paid enough to cover your team's basic costs. But say you will only take your profit if the work proves successful. There's no better way to build a real partnership and win a client's trust.

10. Be honest Tell your client the truth. If you don't think doing creative work is the answer to their marketing problems, tell them. If you think their brief or targeting is wrong, tell them. Finally, never be tempted to present unsatisfactory work just to get yourself out of a hole. If you need more time, tell them. They'll never remember you came back three days late. But they'll always be bitter about bad work that bombed.