Three ways the agency business can save itself

The problems facing the advertising industry run deep.

I have written before about the dearth of good work; the failure of businesses to understand the power of creativity; and the focus on efficiency (minimising cost); rather than effectiveness (maximising returns).

So what are the answers? I wish I had them all – I don’t. But have we made practical steps to try to address some of the issues?

Here are three things that I believe we need to be doing more of.

  • Listening to clients – and asking them the right questions about their business, not their communications.
  • Talking growth and revenue, not ads
  • Matching creativity to business solutions

It sounds simple – but most of the time these are things that don’t come naturally to many traditional creative agencies. But when we try, good things happen. We just need to do more of it – client by client, one opportunity at a time.

Let’s start with listening. We don’t listen enough because we are always trying so hard to demonstrate that we know the answers! Our minds leap to the big creative idea and sometimes the business issue gets lost. Lately, I have been encouraging all my senior management to ask more questions… and then sit back and let the client share their business problems, not their ad needs.

Take notes. Ask questions. Pause. Listen intensely.

We don’t have enough of these business conversations, but we need them. The point is to ask about the client’s business goal. It’s not about communications or making a new ad; it’s about comprehension – it’s about knowing what keeps clients up at night — the ability to understand the levers of growth and the real problems they are facing within their business.

This leads me to point two. Agencies need to talk about their clients’ growth needs. And when we do, great things often happen.

Here’s a real-life example of how this can work. A major skin care brand approached us with an interesting problem. How could they encourage people to wear sunscreen on cloudy days? People’s skin can still be damaged by UV rays on cloudy days, but most people do not know this. It was a classic behaviour change brief that required people to think differently about the way the category had been defined.

By having better conversations with our client, we developed a new product idea for them: Cloudscreen. In essence, a sunscreen designed for cloudy days, sold in packaging that distinguishes it from standard sunscreen.

A communications campaign supported the new product. But the most important element was that changing the packaging impacted behaviour.

The lesson from this is to have bigger conversations earlier in the process. Start broad; don’t narrow down to execution until you’ve had that discussion. It’s up to agencies to engage clients in these conversations – to demonstrate our creative capabilities and go beyond the ad. To get more briefs like this, we need to show we’re interested in the business issues and engage in a way where the brief isn’t ‘locked up’. The possibilities lay open to generating creative business solutions.

The Neutrogena example demonstrates the need to talk about growth. We need to understand the growth agenda of the client. And if you’ve read what I’ve written elsewhere, you’ll know that I think recognising this need for growth is fundamental to restoring our fortunes as an industry.

Marketing can be the major growth driver for a business; you can’t cut your way to growth. In the current climate, marketers are under pressure from the CEO to deliver growth – whether that comes as higher sales, higher market share, better leads for sales teams, or some other measure. We are convinced that the Neutrogena product launch delivered better growth than an ad campaign would have.

In advertising we talk about effectiveness. Let’s talk about growth instead. When we start talking about growth, it resonates with clients, and more importantly the CEO and CFO.

Finally, my third point, let’s talk about creativity. Not just the creativity of a 30-second TV spot, but the application of creativity to business solutions.

That is where the opportunity lies. Agencies bring with them a deep understanding of consumer behaviour. Clients need better understanding of consumers – particularly when it comes to the web-savvy millennial generation. It’s all about customer engagement not just brand awareness.

An agency should be able to bring its deep understanding of consumers into a client’s process of comprehension. It should be a true partner as a business develops its strategy. And it should be able to develop creative business solutions, not just creative ads.

Again, this is an area we have had success with.

In Singapore and Taiwan, DDB worked with McDonald’s, which was facing growing competition at breakfast time. The client had run successful promotions around breakfast, but needed a long-term solution that did not risk erosion of the price consumers would be willing to pay for their meals.

The challenge was to develop something that would engage consumers beyond the communications of any other brand, and to be ‘always on’.

We focused on phones. We realised that the first thing adults in our markets do in the morning is reach for their phone and engage with either Facebook, email or news apps.

The result was the McDonald’s Surprise Alarm, a mobile app that blended utility (helping people to wake up) with surprises (entertaining branded content such as tongue-in-cheek themed visuals, inspirational quotes, Sony Music songs; and McDonald’s coupons) designed to make every morning a little happier.

It was a new way to engage consumers, to deliver coupons, and to optimise the offers based on the data collected by the system. And it worked. Not only did we deliver engagement, in the form of app downloads and usage, we also drove a lasting impact in breakfast sales. And we could only do so because we combined creative thinking and consumer understanding with the business agenda of our client.

As the Neutrogena and McDonald’s work shows, our business is capable of responding to the challenges it faces. Engaging the client more effectively is one pillar of what we at DDB call ECG – engaging creativity for growth. It is a platform that turns better understanding of a client’s business into creative solutions.

As an industry we are uniquely placed to match creativity to our client’s growth agenda. Our goal must be for these to become the main focus of everything we do, not just the occasional one-off opportunity.

The writer is John Zeigler, chairman & CEO, DDB Group Asia Pacific.

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