Ad message a load of old Kant

Ad agencies bemoan brands’ reluctance to advertise. But why should they?

“Why is advertising so easy to cut when harsh winds blow?” lamented Lord Saatchi in The Times earlier this month. Enlisting Newton, Marx, Freud, Descartes, Aristotle and Russell – but no businessmen – to his cause, he asserts that advertising “is the thread on which most companies depend for their survival”.

Sir Martin Sorrell followed last week, accusing clients of shifting away from “brand-building advertising in favour of price-cutting strategies” and asserting that, “in the end, this could wreck brand loyalty”.

In the early days of mass marketing, when competition was limited, shouting at crowds was an affordable option and “consumers” were grateful. Ad agencies and their clients could have been forgiven for thinking that advertising and marketing were two sides of the same coin.

In the past decade, however, marketing has come a long way, and this is what Lord Saatchi doesn’t acknowledge. Customers are more individual, more confident and more demanding. Brand rhetoric is wasted if the brand experience disappoints. Waitrose, Carphone Warehouse, Orange, Virgin Atlantic, Tesco and Lexus have strong followings not because they promise to deliver, but because they do deliver.

Sorrell is right when he says that clients are moving away from “brand-building advertising”, but wrong to infer that advertising is the only way to build a brand. Advertising has played no more than a bit part in the success of Pret A Manger, Oddbins, John Lewis and Amazon. All deliver a consistently excellent customer experience. None are big advertisers.

Advertising agencies have little interest in channels outside TV, press and posters. Their definition of brands is self-centred, blinkered and out of date. Is it any wonder that they have lost the intellectual lead when it comes to brand thinking?

Saatchi and Sorrell say they want the advertising business to produce more effective advocates.

What they really need is better arguments.

Just as customers now demand more of brands, so companies demand more of marketing.

More accountable and more commercial than his predecessor, today’s marketing director knows not to say to his board: “Trust me”. Working closely with his peers in IT and finance, he is often responsible for trade marketing, channel strategy and sales – as well as the brand.

He choreographs a range of communication channels, some of them more personal and interactive, all of them less wasteful than broadcast advertising. Websites, e-mail, contact centres, magazines, personalised direct mail and customer events, all focused intently on his customers. And if he knows which 20 per cent provide 80 per cent of his profits, he gives these customers preferential treatment.

The marketing director has to handle the day-to-day relationship with the customer, and has no time for the agencies’ wild theories. He wants customers to come back time and again, almost without thinking, and he knows that the key to this is making their experience of the brand pleasant and hassle-free.

Marketers aren’t cutting back on marketing. They are simply cutting advertising’s share of the marketing budget and investing their money more effectively elsewhere.

Marketing has moved on. The admen haven’t.

David Miller previously worked in advertising, for both Maurice Saatchi and Martin Sorrell. He is now a client partner at customer marketing company Miller Bainbridge & Partners

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