Every now and then I am taken quietly aside by someone in the wider media industry and asked politely to stop writing such “harsh stuff about ad agencies”.
Trouble is, if you stop being harsh on agencies, you then get a completely different type of person who takes you aside and asks politely how many ad agencies “are paying you to ignore the scurrilous things they are doing”.
Talk about being constantly caught between a rock and a hard place. I know I have harped on about this for years but I firmly believe this message is worth harping on about ad-infinitum. Advertising is crucial to South Africa’s economy in spite of its image falling roughly into the same category as trivial pursuit. It is the stupid advertising campaigns upon which the Advertising Standards Authority leaps with glee, that prompt people like our health minister to want to ban liquor advertising, safe in the knowledge that the majority of South Africans will agree with him.
And, much as a lot of people think I have it in for ad agencies, I have always regarded myself as an advocate for the industry.
Heaven knows how many radio shows I’ve been on defending the ad industry against irate consumers. But of course, the industry doesn’t notice that – they only seem to be aware of criticism. And of course there is criticism. I don’t go hunting for it just to stir up trouble.
It just stands up right in front of me, grabs me by the front of my shirt and screams blue murder in my face. It is very hard to ignore.
First of all there are the really stupid, ill-conceived, ad campaigns clearly designed to shock the consumer into being attentive. It is very difficult to keep quiet when dumb stunts like these create legions of consumers and more industry people you can imagine all phoning and e-mailing me, demanding my opinion.
But stupid ads aside, what really gets to me about our ad industry is desperation-induced greed.
No, not every ad agency is greedy. But the trouble is there are enough greedy moneygrubbers around to really give the industry a bad name.
With the price of advertising having skyrocketed in recent years, it is no wonder a lot of companies are looking very closely at their adspend and what sort of value they’re getting out of it.
With the result that I am being asked more and more to do advertising audits by advertisers worried about not getting enough bang for their buck.
To give you an idea of just how this trend is growing, the marketing director of one of SA’s big five sponsors told me a whikle back, that if one of his staff came to him to asked for permission to go ahead with a R1-million campaign he would admonish them for wasting his time instead of taking ownership and deciding for themselves.
Nowadays, he said, he has to personally approve anything over R50 000. “We just can’t take chances anymore.”
But, getting back to those ad audits, one of the most recent I have done was quite mind boggling. There was no doubt that not only was the agency – yes it was one of the country’s top 10 – shamelessly proposing campaigns and media that would give them maximum revenue but they were blatantly leveraging every single client request in terms of squeezing out as much production revenue as possible.
It was frightening to see a client company haemorrhaging money like that.
It’s hard to defend things like that. I suppose one could argue that with agency margins being squeezed unrealistically by clients who mercilessly leverage the daylights out of every cent, a lot of agencies have to make up the difference by pressuring naïve and unskilled young brand managers into all sorts of crazy schemes. This has been going on for years. And in one recent audit of a company with round about R400-million in ad spend, I found that 35% was being completely wasted.
There is nothing quite like the survival instinct to start making black and white both look distinctly grey.
The tragedy is, however, that these agencies are not doing the industry any favours. Everyone gets tarred by the same brush because a lot of companies that get taken for rides don’t report their errant agencies to the ACA as they should, simply because they don’t want to admit that they were stupid enough to get taken for a ride. They just generalise and bolster the perception that the ad agency business is largely just a ripoff.
It’s a tough situation to be in because its all very well pontificating about putting clients first and doing the right thing and giving value, but it’s tough as hell implementing that sort of thing when you’ve got your nuts in a vice.
To be successful, clients and ad agencies need to have mutually responsible and open relationships. And this does happen, I am happy to say, but not nearly often enough.
When it doesn’t and when it leads to ad agencies having to think of their own pockets first, it is more often than not mostly the client’s fault.