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Friday, 31 October 2008

Will this idiocy ever stop?

If you're in the marketing/advertising game, you're probably familiar with the expression "beauty parade".

It's applied to something called pitching - one of the most stupid ideas of
all in a business that's not short of them. Nonetheless, almost every major marketer follows this exceptionally wasteful practice. In fact a large and lucrative industry has grown up to extract money from them.

If you're not familiar with the epic pointlessness of it - and even if you are -
here’s pretty much how it usually goes.

1. A large firm gets a new marketing director.

2. Among the many things he or she does – like changing everything his predecessor did, good or bad – one is to change the agency, good or bad.

3. The aim is often, but not always, to get old friends in. And always to prove that whatever the previous marketing director did was wrong.

4. A statement is then issued to the Trade Press. These media are for the most part so bum-numbingly dull that the only thing of interest to readers is what might make money. So the statement - printed almost verbatim because trade journals are usually happy to get material they can publish without having to write or think - produces a torrent of phone calls, e-mails and letters from agencies

5. The client is either too busy changing everything, too idle or too ill-informed to know which agencies might be good at the job, so a firm of vultures is hired (at some expense) to suggest who should be allowed to "pitch" for the account.

6. These firms who help on such occasions are rather like estate agents, fulfilling no useful purpose but increasing costs all round. Quite impartially, of course, they suggest (usually too many) firms who have paid one way or another to be put on such lists and who seem on the face of it to be qualified.

7. Vast sums of money, far too much time, and altogether too many dreary meetings attended by altogether too many people are devoted to the agencies putting together proposals and the clients reviewing them.

8. A “short list” is created of firms the client likes the look of - maybe because their reception areas look like smart restaurants, or because they trot out so much quasi-academic drivel that they must be clever. To be fair the client may have been drafted in from an entirely different industry because of some "vision" someone has had, and has yet to understand the business fully anyhow.
9. More meetings take place, much speculative creative work is produced at great expense, and then in a series of presentations (with more meetings to talk about them) the client decides who will get the account.

10. This is often determined by how much the client likes the "strap-line". This is usually a boastful, fatuous or downright lying statement the client likes the sound of which will either achieve nothing or actually infuriate those it is supposed to persuade. Good examples are "Tax doesn't have to be taxing" for the merciless bastards at the Inland Revenue or "Make the most of now" for the twats at Vodaphone. Such lines should only be used if you can prove they increase sales - but that's another subject.

11. Often the client has a committee to review the work, largely composed of people who know nothing about marketing, and who have certainly never had to risk their own money – a very healthy and educative experience, by the way. Sometimes they "mark" the agency using a ludicrous check-list which has nothing to do with results ("8/10 for being the kind of people I could get on with").

12. Quite often the cost of all this charade goes up further because the creative work is researched. This usually gives absolutely no indication of whether it will work, and often is 180 degrees wrong, because customers have no idea of what they will do until they are actually asked to part with cash.

13. The account is assigned.

14. Much mutual back-slapping takes place, and the client is taken to some fashionable, if overpriced eateries, owned by millionaire cooks who pop in between broadcasts to cast their refulgence over dazzled diners and scream at the chefs.

15. Since the agency selected knew even less about the business than the client, it is now asked to produce more work which reflects something slightly more related to the facts. This is then run and either works or more often doesn't, though nobody is quite sure because there is no intelligent attempt to find out.

There are other ways of choosing agencies which I won't go into in any detail, but they are based on other barely relevant theories like who will charge the lowest fees or that the client has done a deal to "align" itself with a particular agency all over the world. In the first case, you get what you pay for, and in the second a lot of hardworking people at the lower levels get pissed off by having to deal with a bunch of arrogant agency people they didn't choose and don't like.

So now you know one or two good reasons why so much marketing fails - and also why people keep chopping and changing their advertising, often for the worse and for no discernible reason.

If you want your marketing to work, just find the people who appear best qualified, based on proper research by you – if you are the person responsible. Don't delegate to people whose careers are not on the line in the way yours is.

Then get the two or at most three agencies who have the best record of getting measurable results, preferably in similar situations, and can explain exactly how and why they got them, to create work you can test.

Once you appoint the winners, keep testing their work against that done by others, but don't threaten them constantly with the thought of losing the business.

Any fool should know all this, but clearly many don’t. Some, who work in “general” advertising - i.e. the kind that doesn’t bother too much with results - say this is because they can’t measure them or, even more fatuous, say they're only interested in brand building, results can wait.

This is all bollocks. All you have to do is ask people to respond in some way to your messages – the only way you know someone read or watched or heard them. If they have, you're building your brand. If they haven't, you're not. And don't believe it can't be done. It can, even in stuff not primarily designed to get a response. At the simplest level, use your website visits as a measure.

One of my clients spent the better part of a year going through the process I have just described. They ended up with some pretty good work (not by us, I should explain, as we refuse to take part in these costly charades). But I think they were quite lucky, even though they are pretty smart people.

What has really distressed me over the years is how little results - which I would have thought were the onlything that counts - seem to matter to people.

A few years ago someone at one of the Scottish banks told a crowded meeting that every single time they had used us, we had bested their incumbent agency. We never got the business, and I am delighted the bank in question is in the toilet. They deserve it. If I could push their chairman's head down in it I'd be delighted

More recently, we comprehensively bested another agency in a whole series of tests - so much so that client said he had never seen anything like it. Did we get the business? No. I hope to see them in the same place as the bank.

And in another case a client moved his account because he used to work for the boss of another agency. It took their creative people two years of trying to beat the copy I wrote for them.

This little cri de coeur is based on one of the helpful marketing ideas I send out regularly, so if you're on the list, you'll get a more polite version eventually. I just think it's important enough to post here, because the way the economy is, we really can't afford this kind of wasteful bullshit.

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