If the old advertising adage that clients get the advertising they deserve is true, then there must be a lot of bloody awful clients out there.
Allow me to explain.
It’s become axiomatic that advertising ain’t what it used to be. People used to like it, now they will do pretty much anything to avoid it, skip it, screen it out. What was once a powerful business tool, that was capable of inserting itself into popular culture, that people said they liked as much or more than the programmes is debased and devalued. Goose killed, no more golden eggs.
There are many, many reasons for this, but prompted by [Campaign associate editor] Kate Magee’s important article on burnout and stress in our industry, I want to focus on one of the causes. Perhaps the most important cause. And perhaps also the one that is hardest to talk about. What’s the phrase? The elephant in the room.
Kate wrote about the problems facing our industry brought on by overwork, incessant pitching, long hours for mediocre reward, lack of proper work/life balance, all accelerated by the pandemic. She and her interviewees concluded that people are both being deterred from entering the industry and forced to leave it. It all needed to be said.
Yesterday there was another admirable article by Kate: 10 things agencies can do to end long hours.
With respect to both, this is our industry bending itself out of shape to address symptoms, rather than identify and eliminate the cause.
Neither article mentions the reason for all this grief. It’s very simple. Clients don’t pay their agencies enough money.
I know, I know. Agencies have conspired in their own downfall. There are loads of other contributory factors. The separation of media from creative started it all (it did). In 150 years advertising has come up with two really bad remuneration systems. Etc. But the plain fact is that the conversation that our industry has been having with client procurement for the past 30 years has only ever gone in one direction. Maybe agencies, under the old commission system, were once paid too much. But there can’t be any doubt that the pendulum has swung far too far the other way. If you need evidence, just look at the work.
Of course, everyone is under pressure to deliver better margins. We’re all in business, we all work for someone, even if it’s the bank. It’s relentless, on clients and agencies both. And there are still great clients who understand the difference between cost and value, who encourage their agencies to strive for excellence and who reward them appropriately. But there are many more who cave into their procurement and finance directors, who continually drive down remuneration, who ask for more work for less pay; who, frankly, bully their agencies into submission.
It’s very hard to resist. There’s always someone else who’ll do it cheaper, as these kinds of client often remind us. And it’s easy to say, when taking on a client you know will be unprofitable that, “it’ll make a contribution to overheads/we can handle it using existing resource/insert your own excuse here”.
But the net result of this is that we have created a situation where there isn’t enough money to hire enough people to do the day job properly, never mind the incessant pitching.
Back in the day, I was CEO of Lowe-Howard-Spink. There was an abundance of talent in every department. And there was a roster of tough-minded but fair clients who were getting fantastic work and paying a proper price for it. Take a bow Tesco, Stella, Heineken, Diageo, Vauxhall, Olympus.
That depth and breadth is now a rare thing. The client/agency relationship has tilted out of balance and fear is a big factor. But here’s the thing; frightened agencies never do good work. They just do lots of mediocre work very quickly (“I’m afraid we’re going to have to work the weekend again, folks”). No-one benefits.
We have industry bodies—the IPA, AA, ISBA. And to be fair they have policies and best practice guidelines and sample contracts and good advice. But if any of that worked, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Which is, just to summarise, an industry that produces a product that people used to like but now don’t; and which people used to love working in but now want to leave.
Do I believe that we can reverse this, salvage something, get to a better place? Absolutely, with intelligent people of goodwill on all sides. But we have to start by acknowledging that the root cause of all of this is that clients are, increasingly, getting a sub-standard product because they’re not prepared to pay enough to get a good one.
What other industry would let that happen?
In the end, good work produces better outcomes—commercially, culturally, socially, politically, environmentally. Good work creates pride in its creators, makes what we do worthwhile. It creates huge value for the brands doing it—I still believe passionately in the power of commercial creativity, which is why I’ve been proud to be part of D&AD for the past 10 years. But we all need to acknowledge that something has gone badly wrong, address the root cause and do something about it.
We owe it to ourselves, to our clients and most of all to the people working those ridiculous hours.
Tim Lindsay is chairman of D&AD.