Paranoid – or are they after us?

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising is widely – and rightly – regarded as a model trade body both within and without the marketing community. So it is of interest to read the manifesto of Hamish Pringle, its new director-general.

His is a slightly paranoid vision of the world, one where advertising is beset by a number of “enemies” encroaching on its creative potential as a brand communications device and engine of the economy. Not all of them are actively malignant; many, in fact, act more out of ignorance than envy or spite.

Some of his points will be familiar to marketers. Pringle picks out the ever-present danger of meddlesome politicians with little business understanding, particularly Eurocrats from what he delicately terms ‘economically marginal or less marketing-literate countries’ (step forward Greece, Sweden and Germany). Here Pringle is on relatively safe ground, although vigilance is required. The UK advertising industry has been pushing at an open door in its dealings with this Government, and has largely diluted or seen off protectionist EU threats.

Pringle also takes a well-aimed swipe at ignorance in the boardroom, and in the City institutions which frame its thinking. No reader of this magazine is likely to seriously dispute the idea that marketing directors deserve a more serious hearing in board meetings, if only to demonstrate how accountable they are. But the problem has deeper roots. When Pringle talks glibly about converting ‘old-fashioned’ finance directors and City analysts to the view that marketing communications are not a cost but an investment, what he is really addressing is the tyranny of the financial reporting system. If innovative marketing is to work, it requires time, strategic vision and an acknowledgement that risk-taking may be necessary. All those requirements are at odds with the narrowly focused idea of producing a smooth and orderly growth in earnings each quarter.

The limitations and contradictions of the system are currently being tested by several leading brand-owners, McDonald’s, Gillette, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola among them. They have experienced the limits of mass markets and are being forced to refocus on product innovation and a deeper understanding of consumer differences. This is something they are evidently struggling to achieve, not helped by an unforgiving environment that allows little room for erroneous forecasts.

Marketing communications, and particularly advertising, faces a related crisis (‘enemy’, to use Pringle’s term, but one he oddly neglects to mention). As consumer tastes have fragmented, so has the commercial media that panders to them. Advertising worked remarkably well in an era when it was the principal communication tool in a mass market served by a strictly limited number of terrestrial broadcast networks. Nowadays, the industry is immersed in the altogether tougher challenge of cutting through the clutter to persuade a much more discriminating consumer to buy its clients’ wares.

Advertising and marketing services have become more professional over the past two decades. But it remains to be seen how well they will deal with new, more complex creative issues.

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