Agencies need to identify brand risk tolerance to execute killer creative in 2012

Seb is Marketing Week’s agency specialist.

Risk and Reward pic

The past 12 months have not been easy. There has been eurozone turmoil, a rollercoaster ride for the stock market, the London riots in August and renewed talk of a double-dip recession as consumer confidence slides to new lows.

And according to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the year ahead will “undoubtedly” be harder than the last.

Given this gloom, the assumption might be that ad spend should be nose diving off a cliff. But, if the third-quarter results from WPP and the other global agency networks are anything to go by, things don’t look so bad.

WPP, owner of agencies such as Group M and Ogilvy & Mather, saw like-for-like Q3 revenues in the UK rise 6.7%, while Omnicom, which owns AMV BBDO, saw revenues increase by 10.6% year-on-year. The other big advertising holding groups such as Publicis and Havas also saw their British turnover rise in the region of 4%.

The paradox that marketing revenues are apparently rising in a tough climate suggests that brands are ramping up media spend to maintain brand awareness rather than bolstering their creative offering, as they become more averse of risk.

Unilever, Toys R Us and General Motors, all reviewed their global media accounts towards the latter of half of 2011 to tap into emerging markets during 2012.

Taking risks is incredibly difficult. With risks comes the possibility of failure and no creative team wants to fail, especially when it could mean the difference between keeping a lucrative account and having to re-pitch for it. Just look at what happened to Muller’s marketing team and ad agency TBWALondon following the launch of the “risky” “Wunderful Stuff” TV spot.

Risk tolerance is a vital aspect of any strong creative partnership between brand and agency. All the campaigns in Pitch’s ‘Most Memorable Ads of 2011’ showed this, particularly the Phones 4U “Missing Our Deals Will Haunt You” TV spots, which were investigated by the ASA for breaching CAP advertising codes. While the ads escaped censorship, there’s no denying that the public furore and media attention that ensued in the wake of the investigation kept them in the limelight better than any ad campaign could ever do.

Successful agencies must be a place where risky thinking can thrive. In a year that will host the Olympics and the European Championships as well as the American Presidential Elections, brands will be hoping their work has the creative flair to capture the imaginations of audiences around the world.

To do this effectively, agencies should stop and ask their clients about personal and organisation risk tolerance. How far does the brand want to push the envelope? Does it rely more in intuition rather than data? Asking these types of questions right at the beginning of a partnership would help clarify how far a creative team can stretch an idea and determine how likely a creative strategy is likely to see the light of day.

Agencies should stop and ask themselves the same question. Let their teams know what approaches are acceptable and have clearly defined boundaries to ensure that each member works towards the same goal.

As long as creative teams know the limits of acceptable failure, creativity will thrive.

Risk doesn’t equal creativity, but if advertisers apply a little discipline and have a candid conversation about it, the benefits would be felt across all steps of advertising; from strategy development, to creativity, right through to production.

By establishing a “public window” of acceptable risk that everyone can operate under, brands can establish which type of failure is ok and which risks they’re never willing to take.

Without the risks, brands never achieve the best rewards. it’s about the creativity. Always has been.

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