Sep 23, 2007

When Bad Ads Happen To Good People

So I’ve been working on an account lately that’s a perfect case study for this proposition.

It’s a big company and the marketing clients are exactly what you want your clients to be: they’re smart, nice people, and actually appreciative of what we bring to the table. I mean they seriously say things like “you guys are the experts.” Even better, they really do seem to get it, so that when we suggest something beyond what we initially discussed, they intuitively understand why and how it makes the ads better.

So where do things go wrong?

Well, they work for a corporation that doesn’t place a whole lot of value in marketing. And so as they send the work around for approval from the non-marketing teams (e.g. sales, corporate) they’re often presented with unreasonable dictates they can’t appeal. Things like “I don’t like blue.” “This sentence needs to read exactly like this:” “Put all four logos at the bottom.” They feel frustrated, undervalued and I fear they’re not going to stick around very long.

So if you’re a client and you’re reading this, how do you prevent your company from falling into this trap? Well here’s Toad’s Plan For Getting The Most Out Of Your Agency So Long As You're Paying Them Big Bucks.

The CEO Has To Value Marketing. That’s step one and without it, nothing else works. The CEO has to support the marketing team. She has to be aware of what’s going on and to let it be known that the new campaign has her full support and that anyone who is actively working against it is going to be actively looking for a new job.

The Marketing Team Has To Be Empowered. Another place good intentions fall apart is when the marketing team is forced to abide by the decisions of other departments, all of whom think they know a lot about advertising (because everyone in America thinks they know a lot about advertising.) So the CEO needs to set up a policy whereby the sales and research and product management teams get to give initial pre-brief input, but where their commentary on the actual creative output is limited to factual errors like “It’s now called the Widget-2100, not Widget-2000.”

Get The Lawyers Out Of The Way. Even where the first two steps are in place, nothing can derail an ad campaign faster than an overzealous lawyer. Now I understand all about our litigation-happy society and why lawyers get that way. But no good can come out of sentences like “The Widget 2100 may possibly be an okay widget.”

This is another place the CEO needs to step in again and take charge. The lawyers who make these sorts of decisions aren’t necessarily experts in advertising law, and so the CEO needs to gently remind them that ads are not legal briefs, that every statement need not be supported by a footnote and, most importantly, that she’s seen the lawyer’s objections and is okay with the ad going forward as is.

Marketing Managers Have To Serve As Strong Advocates For The Work. Small clients are great for agencies because you present directly to the decision makers. Bigger clients, however, have multiple layers and so it’s up to the marketing department to sell the work through. This is a lot tougher than it sounds. Many (if not most) corporate cultures maintain the belief that marketing is the domain of good-looking, socially adept airheads. So anything the marketing department says or does is met with incredible skepticism and/or scorn.

When the CEO strongly supports the marketing department, that perception is somewhat ameliorated. But the marketing team still needs to be strong advocates for the work, selling it with as much enthusiasm as the agency presented it. Even if it means calling in some of their counterparts from the agency to help.

I can’t stress how important this step is, since I’ve been in too many situations where the marketing department’s idea of selling the ads through was to send a PDF of the work to the appropriate higher-ups and wait for the inevitable fallout. (Now to be fair, this happened in large part because in-person presentations devolved into opportunities for the sales team to mock the marketing team and really, who wouldn’t want to avoid that. But with an activist CEO, this should no longer be the case.)

De-Balkanize Your Ad Budgets. Big companies often have multiple divisions with multiple ad budgets. So rather than one $100 million budget, you have twenty-five $4 million dollar ones, with a whole lot of overlap and the inability to do anything unique or significant. A smart CEO will recombine those budgets into one big pot, giving the company the opportunity to really make a mark with their advertising. If that’s not possible, she should give the marketing team the power to combine some of the smaller budgets and to reevaluate those budgets and the messaging they’re supporting to ensure that there’s no overlap. This requires some degree of planning and vision on the part of the marketing team, but if it’s used to say, fund a photo shoot or video shoot that all divisions can share, it can pay off in spades.

Clients who follow these steps can be assured a strong, consistent marketing program, since it’s been my experience that most agencies are quite competent at their jobs. But CEOs who don’t value marketing and who don’t want to get involved would be wise to create their campaigns in-house. Why pay an outside vendor who charges you for their expertise if you have no intention of ever using that expertise? An in-house team can create ads exactly as you want them for a whole lot less.

Quality, however, is a different story.

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