Agencies’ process is out of balance, with too many avoiding the business problem, ignoring the science, needlessly reinventing the wheel and being chronically short term, argues Mike Teasdale.

Cue the violins! Ad agency life is hard.

It’s hugely competitive. We work very long hours. Most of our blood, sweat and tears ends up being rejected by clients or ignored by consumers. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. It crushes all but the most resilient and optimistic of personalities. And it spits us out at the peak of our ability. Yes, it’s fun while it lasts and fantastically well paid once you’ve made it to the top but there is no denying that ad agency life is hard.

So, given that, why do we make things harder for ourselves by repeating behaviours that experience tells us not to?

We never seem to find time to get briefs right, yet we always find time to make creative revisions.

My dad used to say, “less haste, more speed” and it’s good advice. The more time you invest at the start of the process, the more dividends it will return at the end.

The #1 thing to get clarity on is the key problem that advertising needs to solve. I don’t mean a woolly wish-list but a specific job to be done that advertising is capable of, ideally expressed in a way that catches the reader’s eye and acts as an instant catalyst for creative development.

What often strikes me when talking with younger planners is how little they know about the business context underlying briefs they are working on. They understand consumer behaviours and attitudes but rarely understand things like what stage a market is at, what stage the brand is at, what the brand aspires to be, and what the client is seeking to achieve for their business.

We don’t look back to help us move forward.

I once had a lovely Unilever client who used to bemoan what he called “brand vandalism”, the wanton destruction of brand assets by new marketers not learning from what had been tried before. He taught me the importance of brand archaeology, digging into brand archives and revisiting old brand communications.

Brand archaeology not only stops you throwing the baby out with the bath water it also teaches you about the most distinctive brand assets you can build on. Even the most knackered brand will have distinctive assets that can be salvaged and re-used. Anything sensory, audio or visual, can trigger brand name association and make it easier for consumers to identify your brand in advertising or in store.

We don’t look forward beyond the end of our nose.

The speed of digital metrics poses a serious threat to the traditional role ad agencies have played in developing memorable campaigns for big brands that build year on year. The balance between long-term brand building and short-term activation is tipping in favour of the short-term even though we know that is damaging to long-term brand effectiveness.

Being chronically focused on the short run at the expense of the long run not only means we spend more and more on activations and promotions at the expense of the brand, it also encourages inconsistency in how brands behave. Everything becomes an experiment where our ability to manage a healthy balance between impulsiveness and control is weakened.

An advertising environment in which long-term equity-building mass marketing is increasingly replaced by short-term response-generating micro marketing gives marketers an excuse to indulge any impulse that strikes them rather than to make controlled moves.

We don’t put into practice what we know about human psychology.

Why do we continue to treat humans as rational beings making reasonable decisions based on knowledge?

The answer is because it’s comforting. It creates a sense of control over what is a scary and uncertain endeavour. But the reality is that people don’t make buying decisions the way ad agencies and clients make messaging decisions.

Humans have neither the time nor the processing power to do so. Instead, the brain devises intuitive strategies to help us make instant decisions driven by unconscious emotional reactions. At best, rational processing is used to justify and make us feel good about the emotional decision we’ve already made.

The bottom line is, ad agencies and their clients are obsessed with information when psychology tells us that humans are non-consumers of information. We should be thinking more about motive and alibi than proposition and support.

All these behaviours are proven to be detrimental to our chances of success. So why do we repeat them? Is it the ignorance of youth in an industry so obsessed with what’s new that it is congenitally incapable of learning from the past? Or is it the impotence of ad agencies in this new world order? Or maybe we’re just masochists who like to suffer for our pleasure!