Original sin

Clients are seemingly happy to sacrifice original ideas in favour of tried-and-tested methods that deliver to deadline and within budget. By Jo-Anne Flack

There was a time when television audiences said they often preferred watching the ads to the programmes. This is no longer the case and advertisers are having to cope with the realities of channel-hopping during the break.

But if above-the-line TV advertising is not perceived to be as creative and engaging as it used to be, what is the perception of direct marketing (DM)? In an industry that has always been insecure about its creative abilities, is the work getting better, or are clients and agencies only interested in response rates?

Last year, for the first time in the seven years the survey has been conducted, the Marketing Week Direct Marketing Agency Reputation survey saw clients ranking quality of account handling as the most important element when choosing an agency – putting it above creative ability, which had historically taken the top spot. Was this an indication of clients getting jittery at the first signs of an economic slump and turning to the comforts of what they perceived as commercial certainties rather than creative leaps?

Pulling in opposite directions

Ian Haworth is executive director and head of the creative department at WWAV Rapp Collins – an agency which is, rightly or wrongly, seen as a good, solid worker as opposed to a hotbed of creative activity. He believes that the situation with clients is more complex.

He says: “There is a polarisation among clients. On the one hand, DM is getting much more of the marketing spend and so we’ve come under the spotlight of marketing directors, who are demanding the same creative standards as they expect from above-the-line advertising. On the other hand, a lot of clients are suffering in this economic climate and we are seeing a more risk-averse culture.

“Junior clients, particularly, don’t want to take any risks. They want tried-and-tested formulae. So the senior clients are demanding more creativity, but the guys in the trenches are having a bloody hard time. Creativity is not high on their list of priorities when they are trying to save their jobs.”

No one believes that bigger budgets mean more creative advertising and so the current economic downturn is not being held up as a direct link to substandard work. There is a correlation, however, between working practices and the quality of work being produced.

Millennium creative director Reg Starkey sa

ys that people are being forced to work under pressure and this affects the quality of work.

“Too often a good ad is seen as something that is approved and gets out on time,” he says. “There is a lot of pressure, internally, to get work approved. It isn’t possible to spend a lot of time on a piece of work anymore.” Starkey says the advertising industry resembles a massive production line and so “the real challenge is trying to do something that is beautifully crafted, rather than just something that works”.

But one of the contentious issues emerging within DM is whether the standard threeto five-per-cent response rates that have always been accepted as good enough will continue to satisfy clients. DM agencies have for years peddled the line, to both clients and the media, that five-per-cent response rates mean a successful campaign.

Under pressure

The fact that 95 per cent of the target didn’t respond to a campaign has never been examined too closely. As clients become more dogged about returns on investment, agencies will be under pressure to guarantee better responses. The fact is, however, that most of the top 20 agencies can already provide tried-and-tested formulae that guarantee accepted response levels.

141 managing director Dennis Kerslake says: “You can see in a lot of financial services work, particularly credit card marketing, that everyone has learnt the tricks of the trade. It means, however, that all the advertising looks the same and things are beginning to cancel each other out. The only thing that will provide the differentiation that is needed, is creativity.”

In terms of production values, agencies are on a par with each other: they can all churn out the work to the same quality. So, according to Haworth, the added value will be in the ideas – not only the ideas, but the quality of the craft, which Haworth believes is missing in a lot of DM campaigns.

“We know lack of money should not affect creativity, but what it does hinder is executional craft. People rarely commission original photography anymore and instead use stock shots. Craft is one of the biggest things missing in our industry; the result is that a lot of the work looks the same and is very bland,” he says.

So, far from being pushed down the list of priorities, it seems as if creativity – original ideas – may be the only element that saves a campaign from being lost in the crowd.

Former chairman of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) creative council Chris Arnold goes a step further and says that, not only advertising, but industry generally, is moving into what he calls a creative economy.

“We are entering an entrepreneurial creative economy. One of the reasons why the US economy has not experienced such a big slump is because, over there, intellectual economy is also part of the equation. There is money in thinking and good ideas. In this country, Dyson has just sacked 800 people in manufacturing but it is expanding its research and development division. The real value is in the thinking rather than the product,” says Arnold.

It is for this reason, he says, that creativity is not an optional extra. “Client servicing is not going to sell your product,” says Arnold.

One view about why clients rated account handling higher than creative ability comes from Cramm Francis Wolf creative director Terry Trower. He believes one reason could be that creative ability is not perceived as a problem anymore by clients, whereas good account handling is increasingly hard to find. Kerslake supports this, adding that because marketing departments have shrunk so much, clients don’t have the time they want or need to spend with their agencies. “The emphasis therefore is on getting the job done and being efficient – that is why clients gave the feedback about account handling,” he says.

Draft managing partner Tony Watson agrees: “I can understand why the survey showed account handling as being seen as most important. A lot of clients are generally nervous at the moment because they are under increasing pressure to deliver numbers in the short term. And that mitigates against risk taking.

“I also think that all the talk in the past year about things like customer relationship management (CRM), databases, software systems, and so forth, also makes for nervous clients who don’t necessarily know a lot about these things. Therefore there is a tendency to rely on trusted friends to explain it all to them – and they are the account handlers.”

Essential element

So everyone, on the agency side at least, agrees that creativity is an essential ingredient in campaigns and that it is up to the agencies to persuade clients that, in the words of Draft’s Watson: “Creativity is not a function of budget.”

But it is the clients who pay the bills and therefore call the shots and the evidence, from the creative directors themselves, proves that there are still plenty of clients who will sacrifice creativity if they think it will provide them with a greater return on investment

Trower says: “It is the retailers who are the worst, especially if they have in-house studios or creative departments. They will look at your ideas and then think how they can do it more cheaply themselves.”

But the battle to gain new consumers is getting tougher and there is over-capacity in the more mature industries. It is, therefore, unlikely that good account handling or getting an ad out to deadline will provide the edge needed to gain consumers’ attention.

Kerslake is hopeful that creativity will come to be seen as the only differentiator in a crowded market. “It has to be about the quality of thinking and creativity rather than just getting the work done. We are all using the same multiples, we’re all hiring the same people, and we’re all paying the same salaries.

“The difference will be in the quality of thinking; and that will be worth paying for. If you look at the way big clients are buying services, most contracts work on zero margins. What clients are buying is the quality and the time of bright and creative people.”

Well, some clients anyway.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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