Today’s advertising environment increasingly sees long-term, equity building mass marketing being replaced by short-term, response-generating micro marketing and, says Mike Teasdale, ageism in ad agencies is contributing to the problem.
Spring is about to be sprung and Mother Earth will, yet again, unleash her most important biological process. Leaves and plants will start to grow, the first flowers will appear, and bulbs will bloom. But it won’t all happen at once in an impulsive burst of energy. The plant kingdom is far too savvy for that. It will exercise control until it senses the weather has improved sufficiently.
This tempering of new growth is not dissimilar to what we do in the world of commercial creativity. We balance the opposing forces of impulsiveness and control to ensure the resulting creativity has the best long-term chance of thriving.
Clients who hire an ad agency do so to access a better version of commercial creativity than they could do themselves. They believe their ad agency will manage the balance between impulsiveness and control better than they could. My experience of clients over many years of working in ad agencies suggests they are right to believe that.
Either their processes or structures or cultures make for too controlled an environment, or they lurch impulsively in response to management directives or competitive threats. Either way, they don’t achieve the dynamic tension needed to generate long-term impactful commercial creativity.
Even though the nature of commercial creativity is changing (as awareness-building creativity increasingly needs to be combined with creativity that generates connected brand experiences), the need to balance the forces of impulsiveness and control remains unchanged. But is our ability to manage that balance weakening? I sense the rise of impulsiveness at the expense of control.
I recently had a stomach bug and spent a day curled up with a hot water bottle watching TV while flitting round the internet on my phone. What started out as pleasantly mindless soon became irritating thanks to the ad messages. It wasn’t so much the volume as the quality that irritated. There were very few genuine long-term ideas on show.
With the need nowadays for brands to be in constant conversation with us across multiple platforms and moments, I guess it’s not surprising that some stuff feels like noise. And with the expanding variety of agency partners and media channels, I guess it’s also not surprising that there is some inconsistency in how brands behave. But I am not talking about noise or inconsistency. I am talking about the extent to which the commercial creativity I was exposed to felt like it was building long-term equity for the businesses it serves. To me, it all felt very disposable.
Maybe that’s the nature of advertising today. The shrinking average tenure of client CMOs, the expanding number of creative options, the rise of project fees and zero-based budgeting at the expense of retainers, the corporate investor demands for quarterly returns, the growing addiction with instant results that comes from access to real-time digital metrics… it’s all creating short-termism.
I’m up for change as much as the next 50-year-old, but I do worry about an advertising environment in which long-term equity-building mass marketing is increasingly replaced by short-term response-generating micro marketing. It gives marketers an excuse to indulge any impulse that strikes them rather than to make controlled moves.
And I worry that ad agencies are increasingly powerless to stop this drift to short-termism. The very group of people who for generations have been the guardians of brand consistency can now find themselves party to acts of brand vandalism.
Those best placed in ad agencies to stop the rise in short-termism are planners. Planners have always been uniquely placed to help in the quest to balance impulsiveness and control. In many ways, planning is as much about knowing what not to do; it’s about controlling tendencies to change things that don’t need changing.
But just when the ad industry really needs this voice of reason, it seems increasingly unable to provide it. The numbers don’t lie. There is a dearth of grown-up planners working in ad agencies. And by grown-up I don’t mean 35-year-olds with bushy beards; I mean 50-year-olds with grey hair. The inherent ageism in ad agencies has worsened in the past 15 years as the most senior talent – the ones with the experience to counter creeping short-termism – have been sacrificed on the bonfire of digital.
Just as Mother Earth always seems to cope, and life goes on, so ad agencies will no doubt adapt. But will they be able to withstand the rise of impulsiveness?