There was a time when advertising in South Africa was able to push the envelope and test consumers’ taste and decency thresholds to the limit. And even if the ads that went too far got hauled over the coals by the Advertising Standards Authority – we’ll, what the heck, no real harm done and frankly, it didn’t really cost all that much.
Clients simply wrote losses off against the fairly substantial PR value that came with peripheral publicity.
This PR value was so good, in fact, that a lot of agencies actually produced ads knowing that they were going to be banned. They inevitably ran them on Friday evenings and heavily throughout the weekend and when the ASA pulled them on Monday morning, well, the campaign was over anyway.
These were the heydays of the creative. Days in which South Africa won relatively more international advertising awards than any other nation on earth.
Creatives had free rein to go the extra mile and even those campaigns that were never designed to offend ended up winning even more awards because the creative spirit was being challenged every single day to come up with something better, smarter, cleverer and more eye-catching.
Great ads were a dime a dozen. They were dinner table talking points.
So what’s happened now? Sitting on an ad awards panel a while back, trying to select the best ad of the past year, neither I not nor my fellow judges could think of anything offhand that stood out. Some jurists wanted to award a winner just for the heck of it and others insisted that if there wasn’t anything good enough, why make an award anyway?
Does this mean that creatives in South Africa are just not good enough anymore? Have they lost that globally competitive edge? Have they all joined the brain drain?
Frankly, I don’t think they have lost anything at all. They’re just as good as ever but unfortunately they’re having to play in a completely different league to their forebears.
Perhaps a good analogy is that of professional sport. Notice how, now that sport involves such big money, our cricketers, footballers and rugby players are under far more pressure than their counterparts of a decade or so ago? How captains are fired and coaches kicked out on a whim?
Well, the same thing has happened in a way, to our advertising creatives.
Just what then, is putting all this pressure on them?
I remember a few years ago, I was in a meeting of agency creative heads and MDs and out of the blue a creative director gave vent to an impassioned plea to be allowed to push the envelope, to do what was best for advertising, to be free of interference and censorship from within the agency and not have to worry about action by the ASA. A very frustrated craftsman who felt he was being denied use of all the tools of his trade like a sculptor having his chisel taken away and left with nothing but a chunk of marble and a blunt nail with which to carve a masterpiece.
One of the ad agency MDs responded with venom, telling the CD he would toe the line and had better damn well worry about action from the ASA because written into the client/agency contract was now an unambiguous clause stating that if an ad or campaign was banned by the ASA, the agency would be required to pay the production costs of a new campaign. And no agency, said the irate MD, no matter how big, could afford to shell out anything between R500 000 and R5 million on a new TV commercial
Add to this the fact that the people who handle advertising on the client’s side are very different to their counterparts of 10 years ago. The brain drain has been crippling among brand and product managers.
The skills shortage is very real to the point of few product managers wanting to take any kind of decision let along something that involved a modicum of risk. And to hell with the fact that modern business practice almost insists on risk taking.
There is no doubt that the creative skills, will and spirit are still burning within the creative ranks of the ad agencies. Unfortunately, however, those who hold the purse strings, the clients, are becoming less and less inclined to empower their agencies to do what is best, preferring rather, a low-profile, conservative approach that won’t get marketing and ad managers, brand and product managers into trouble with their boards.
But, there are a number of other elements exacerbating the problem. And it is a problem. A glance at the Cannes International Advertising Awards over the past few years shows South African entries winning fewer and fewer awards. Clearly a decline against world standards.
The Advertising Standards Authority is also under pressure. Not only severe funding hassles but pressure from Parliament to not only protect local consumers from misleading advertising and those that breach the bounds of taste and decency but what’s more, the ASA is expected to educate the public on the fact that they can complain about advertising.
This led to an advertising campaign by the ASA a few years ago, which increased the number of complaints about advertising to such an extent that the campaign had to be withdrawn simply because the ASA did not have the resources to handle the flood of complaints.
Add to this the fact that the South African consumer is becoming more demanding. Toyi-toying union members have shown local consumers that it is OK to complain, unlike not so many years ago when complaints either fell on deaf ears or one ended up in jail if the protest was too vociferous.
This simply has to have the effect of stifling adventurous creatives.
The situation is going from bad to worse and clearly something needs to be done.
In my opinion, the advertising industry simply has to become a lot more businesslike. Which strangely enough will give the creatives more freedom and not less.
And the process has to become a lot more strategic.
For starters, marketing and not the great advertising idea needs to become the starting point. Going back to basics, getting all the elements of the marketing mix in line, particularly research when it comes to advertising, and then applying creative advertising within the context of a marketing plan.
Big advertising ideas borne out of marketing are the kind of advertising ideas that work and which are also more likely to win advertising awards these days.
With ad agencies being pounded by auditing firms and management consultants who are invading agency turf in large numbers, it is time for the agencies to reassess their roles.
While it will be necessary for them to move away from the emphasis on creative as an agency USP, this has to be done without diminishing the role or contribution creatives can make to an advertising campaign.
Frankly, what is needed is for creative departments to be abandoned as such and for the creative director to become part of the overall strategic marketing team.
Creative people need to become marketers. They also need to become media experts. Unfortunately right now far too many creatives live in an isolated world of their own. They don’t consume media and they are not too interested in marketing or what makes the consumer tick.
They are creative people first and foremost and by their very nature disinterested in the business side of business. They are simply going to have to change because no longer will marketers accept advertising that simply gets attention. It has become too expensive not to go way beyond that. It has to hold attention, manage attention and motivate.
Creatives are also going to have to understand that not being able to be all things to all men is no longer a valid argument. Nor is creating a campaign that will upset small sections of the target market. Being all things to all men IS the creative challenge of today.
Ultimately there will be no strategic advertising on one side and creative advertising on the other.
There will only be strategic advertising but the creative element will remain the backbone.
Times are tough right now for the advertising industry. A lot of outsiders are muscling in on what used to be exclusive territory. Ad agencies are going to have to decide. Either they can promote themselves as creative hot shops and not pretend to offer any other service other than great creative ideas produced by people with pony tails, tatty jeans, bare feet and somewhat out of touch with business reality. Or, they have to become strategic marketers able to offer integral creative input by very clever, businesslike, creative people wearing suits.
That way, unskilled and reticent clients will also have a far better idea of what they are buying.
There will always be some demand for purely creative ideas but the ambitious agencies that want international alignments and big accounts will have to start persuading their creatives to become a lot more businesslike.
Just think about the influence that accounting firms have on advertising decisions these days. And not one of them can draw a straight line with a ruler without getting their thumbs in the way. Not a creative soul in sight. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
IMAGE: The 2013 recipient of the prestigious Lion of St. Mark award at the 60th Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity will be advertising legend Lee Clow, Chairman of TBWA\Media Arts Lab and Director of Media Arts, TBWA\Worldwide.