- Image is nothing
What is a brand? An identity? A set of values? A lifestyle?
Sean Pillot de Chenecey looks at how advertising agencies have been forced to change to lure an ever-more-cynical public.
Advertising agencies have had a rough time over the past couple of years. Every week, a new report tells us that the end is nigh for the image makers. The issue, that mere image-based advertising is all but over, is causing more than a few sleepless nights in adland. Those like John Grant (co-founder of St Luke’s) argue a solid case that we’re moving into a new era, where conceptual marketing will form the next wave of brand activity in a sector that has seen little fundamental change in half a century. Several generations have grown up used to a one-size-fits-all style of advertising that was anecdotally useless 50 per cent of the time. The worry that this approach is now useless for 85 per cent of the time, as Grant argues in his excellent book After Image, is forcing many of the sharper agencies to reconsider their role in the brand custodian business. Yet this is nothing new – back in 1970, the newly formed Saatchi & Saatchi argued that: “Image and brand awareness are meaningless if they fail to achieve greater turnover… it’s time for a new kind of advertising.” Little appears to have changed – with the new kind of advertising promised by the Saatchi brothers 30 years ago appearing to mean non-stop, staggeringly bland commercials that irritate and turn away consumers en masse. Which was fine, of course, when that industry just made commercials that we had no choice but to watch in the days of media austerity. But add TiVo to the satellite and cable/internet and mega-brand blur equation, and the ad world has a fight on its hands to keep our attention in 2008. The very nature of what brands stand for has altered – a pivotal point being 11 September – and the notion of where brands go from here is up for grabs. Corporations are running to catch up with people who demand some inner meaning from their band of choice in a mature market, multichoice environment. This “inner meaning” can take many forms, but our old friend, authenticity, is right up there with a reconnection with the local culture. This gives marketing messages a non-marketing frrl that the post-modernists were searching for in the late Nineties. (Here the consumer wants to find the brand and not feel that the brand is engaged in a relentless effort to target them instead.) If this sounds very New Labour, don’t worry, because this time it’s personal.According to Dave Nottoli, planning director of New York-based Kirschenbaum Bond & Partners: “All brands will become ‘cause’ brands. That doesn’t necessarily mean social responsibility, but it does mean motivating people to act. People don’t want passive brands that just stand for a cool badge. Buying into that says ‘I’m a superficial person’. They want brands that mean more, that have a higher purpose. Just look at what’s happening around the worlds today. The biggest thing connecting people today is activism; not just political activism, but people are taking on new roles in their daily lives. People looking out for terrorists on airplanes. Everyone is now into security. Causes are how people find belonging, something to join, so brands will be about joining a cause. For example, Nike. Its cause is getting more people to participate in sport. Mini’s cause is getting more people to enjoy driving. Capitalism is now a cause. So is anti-capitalism. If you’re not moving a cause forward or creating movements, you’ll be irrelevant.”Meanwhile, the advertising industry itself id still reeling after the worst recession in a generation, and an unnerving feeling that perhaps those horribly well-reasoned attacks from the likes of Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and Noreena Hertz might just be right. The whole image of what advertising agencies do and how they do it is being called into question on a regular basis.While Clerkenwell bars resound to the braying laughter of the new tribe of creative outfits congratulating themselves for sticking promotional messages on everything, from pavements to lamp posts, in an effort to achieve ad land’s Holy grail “stand-out and cut through”, others aren’t so impressed. As Banksy put it in his book Existencilism: “Twisted little people go out every day and deface this great city, leaving their idiotic little scribblings, invading communities and making people feel dirty and used. They just take, take, take and they don’t put anything back. They’re mean and selfish and they make the world an ugly place to be. We call them advertising agencies.”And yet most people have incredible loyalty to brands and are more than prepared to forgive and forget if a little ingenuity and wit is used when trying to reach them through accepted commercial routes. A ray of hope shone through the clouds of despondency hanging over the Groucho Club last autumn when P&G (yes, those relentlessly boring bastards) turned volte-face and demanded creativity from their agencies – and awards to prove it.An interesting move in advertising mimics the latest move from the media owners, and makes the line between content and advertising ever thinner. One of those in the vanguard of pushing things forward is agency CDD. Creative director Walter Campbell recently explained its Mercedes Luckystar commercial: “It’s a branding campaign that doesn’t explicitly mention the brand, disguised as a trailer for a film that doesn’t exist, in which the car is the hero, but looks like a piece of product placement.”Elsewhere, agencies are winning accounts hand over fist by taking a lead from Nike’s US Play campaign and putting a bit of childhood exuberance back into entertaining commercial breaks.Meanwhile, in the blue corner, and sick of being dismissed as a bunch of barrow boys with attitude, the media agencies (just like the Shoreditch Twat’s angry Essex City boys) are fighting back. Media is where it’s at, they say – an environment in which true creativity is knowing how to cut through the data smog that surrounds us and come up with the killer, “relevant” message to connect brand with consumer. The likes of Starcom Motive, BLM and New PHD are firing broadsides at what they se as the old guard of creative giants, grown fat and lazy after years of zero competition from out of the sector – staffed by Oxbridge inbreds who reside in Notting Hill and are unconnected with the real world. How can hese people have complete ownership of the brand-connecting game when there are so many others crowding their patch? Let’s get some new blood in they cry, and shake the place up a bit.I put this point to Nick Barham, director at uber-creative agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty. “One of the biggest challenges, not simply for ad agencies, but for all agencies in the business of brand communication, is that traditional demarcations and job roles are becoming blurred, and all agencies are trying to expand their role. It’s not just about media agencies destroying creative agencies, but a more total battle royal where ad agencies are up against music promotion agencies, PR agencies, digital agencies, and production companies.“As brand content becomes more varied and diverse, and spills into programming, club nights, gaming and art, so more and more companies feel that they can have a go. Certainly, media agencies are well placed to grow. They have all the contacts and in this mutlichannel world, that’s a big part of the battle. Sign up a few creatives and you’re away, right? But the main issue is not one type of agency destroying another: what we will see is more relevant ways of working and dreating communications destroying outdated approaches. What will count is who has the best brand understanding and insights (and ad agencies are stil pretty good at this), and who can deliver these insights in an increasingly multiple and entertaining fashion. The ad agencies that will be destroyed are those that can’t see beyond producing cute TV 30-seconders, supported by print and posters.”John Shaw, Oregon-based planning director of Wieden and Kennedy (winner of the global Gunn Reports top creative agency 2002) believes: “It’s good for creative agencies to be challenged to be creative, to be questioned. Are they attracting the best creative people? Do they enable those people to do their best work? Do the planners stimulate the creative process? If yes, they still provide something very valuable, and that’s not that easy for a ‘media’ agency to provide. Otherwise, they deserve to feel a lot of hear from the strong business thinking and tremendous information that some ‘media’ agencies have.”But is there really a sound reason at all for above-the-line advertising to take the lion’s share of every brand’s marketing budget? A Financial Times report stated: “The basic human need to share our experiences with others is being understood for the powerful market influence it is. ‘Buzz’ and ‘viral’ marketing are essentially attempts to influence everyday conversation.They depend on rumour and gossip, which looks set to become the marketing tools of the new century. An advantage of gossip over official marketing is that consumers know advertisements are aimed at selling products and are sceptical of them; by contrast, information conveyed by word of mouth seems authentic and appears to have greater value.”So agin, we start a year when the ad industry has hardly recovered from the kicking it received in the past one, with only a few prepared to see the iceberg ahead. As Mark Wnek, executive creative director of Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper said recently: “While many advertising agencies are still saying ‘the answer is a 30-second TV commercial, now what’s the question? The real world increasingly requires more radical and creative solutions.”Time perhaps for a new breed of agency – and a new kind of advertising.