Monday, February 3, 2020

Speaking of the cobbler's children.

A couple of friends of mine, David Moore and Dave Dye, have through the years collected dozens and dozens of house ads. You know, ads agencies create that advertise themselves.

Maybe those ads are obsolete today. You certainly don’t see house ads very often, if at all.

Today, agencies seem more apt to showcase their creativity through the quasi-faux work usually created with a client’s consent almost exclusively to win at Cannes. I say the work is on the faux side because outside of awards shows, I’ve never actually seen any of it. Or, if I have seen it, I don’t know what it’s selling or what it has to do with the client’s business.

That’s too broad of course, for effect. Some Cannes entries, I’m sure, are real. But often they seem to me real about the same way a hamburger in a fast-food commercial is real food. I’ve never seen a burger like that in real life. I’ve never been served one. I can only think that the burger and the much award-entered advertising work has undergone a lot of doctoring.

For work, in my mind to be legitimate, it has to actually be paid for (in full) by clients and have real materiel effect in the market. Otherwise, at least to my purist sensibilities, it’s fake. Director’s cuts are fake. Spots with re-written jokes are fake. Sorry, that’s how I see things.

Of course the best promotion an agency can do for itself is to produce every year a body of great work that drives their clients’ businesses forward, attracts growth from current clients and in the process attracts new clients.

That’s what the cognoscenti would call “showing, not telling.”

But I wondered if part of the reason agencies don’t advertise themselves any longer is that they no longer have anything to say. They don’t have a bonafide differentiating philosophy backed by in-market success. They don’t have an approach to work they believe in that they stand behind and sell to clients. Because they have no information anymore that says it works.

Take three of my all-time favorite taglines (the first two from the late, great agency Amirrati & Puris, the third from Chiat\Day.)

1.    We run the tightest ship in the shipping business.    (For UPS.)
2.    The ultimate driving machine. (For BMW.)
3.    Think different. (For Apple.)

Could any of those be credibly adapted for an agency today? Could any agency sell itself on:

1.    The efficiency of their process and their work?
2.    The powerful way their work performs?
3.    Their ability to see and solve client problems in unique and special ways?

Many agencies have slogans—but very few, it seems to me, have the “stuff” to back their slogans up. Their slogans and philosophies are empty—words, not the synthesized expression of an ethos.

Their lines might sound ok. But they mean nothing. Like the current trend in taglines, “the smart way to money.” “I’m lovin’ it.” “Rise above.” They’re never defined. They don’t embody real behaviors. You could slap them on anything and they’d be equally banal.

Not too long ago I wanted to write an ad for an agency where I was working; the word was we had scared a lot of potential clients away because we were expensive. The ad I proposed was simple:

We’re the world’s most expensive ad agency. And why. 

Of course, that barely made it out of my computer.

But going back to hamburgers for a second, it seems to me that the four big agency fast-food chains (Omnicom, IPG, WPP and Publicis) are all selling the same patties, the same buns, the same garnishes. We don’t talk about it because we have nothing to say.

It’s more than a little damning and, yes, abnegating. We don’t advertise because we stand for nothing special, and as an industry, or an oligopoly, we fundamentally don’t believe in advertising anymore. It costs too much and its effects are dubious.

Could any agency run any of these today?

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