Client-side in the 1970s, we were called product managers, not brand managers, and the agencies understood the brand better than we did. Over 40 years, the agency service has fragmented. The biggest shift in that was the splitting off of media into media agencies. That was driven very substantially by clients wanting to pay less – a progressive trend over time.
An underlying trend is that clients have been unwilling to pay for any talent other than creative executional talent within creative agencies. As an agency ‘suit’, by the early 1990s I could see that the clients had strategic talent in-house. When I started, ad agencies would be welcome in the client’s boardroom – they aren’t any more. The rise of procurement, which is the exercise of knowing the cost of everything but the value of very little, has put more pressure on agencies.
So do clients pay less as a result? Probably not. The first ad I worked on for Beecham’s when I joined McCann in 1978 took over a year to get through. That is inconceivable now. For a brand, we might have made one TV commercial and four or five press executions; now, any campaign probably has 600 or 700 variations because of the fragmentation of media channels, and someone has to produce those ads. The volume and fragmentation means the client has to pay multiple costs per execution.
In the 1980s, you could buy half the ITV audience with a spot in Coronation Street and one in News at Ten, and if you covered the country with a few posters you would have an amazingly big campaign. You might be spending £250,000 or £500,000 annually. Now, to have an effective campaign, you are talking about numbers that are astronomical in relation to that, and you can’t find a medium that will deliver that audience impact; you have to go on multiple channels.
The nature of the big idea – simply, ruthlessly delivered – has changed into multiple smaller ones. Instead, you need a really long-term big idea, like Audi’s ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’. That has created so much value. A big idea like that does what a brand should do, which is to inform the whole culture of an organisation, as well as inform the external audience why they should pay a premium for that car. If you’re very lucky, and your marketing has worked and is still working, that is genuinely value-additive for shareholders.
As told to Michael Barnett
Tim Lefroy was a marketer at Cadbury’s and Gillette before going agency-side with McCann Erickson, Young & Rubicam, Yellowhammer and consultancy Radical. He was also CEO of the Advertising Association. He now runs the consultancy Leonardo Advisory and is a trustee at Riverside Studios.