As an advertising professional, I am keenly aware of the way in which the digital media revolution has transformed marketing practices. Especially in the last couple of years, when social media has challenged a lot of the received wisdom of advertising orthodoxy, and forced marketeers to think about their brands in different ways. Two stories this week provided interesting commentary on these trends, and made me think that, when it comes to it, maybe so much hasn't changed after all.
Business Day magazine, in Australia, heralded Twitter as calling last orders on the gluttonous ad agencies, drinking at their clients' expense. Perhaps the most revealing phrase was in the entire article was:
Why pay big dollars to an ad agency when you can create your own inexpensive in-house campaign and get your nephew to launch it on YouTube and Twitter?
Why indeed. For that matter why pay a fancy lawyer big bucks to defend you in court, when your law student daughter would do it for free? Why pay a plumber to fix your heating when you're pretty handy with a spanner yourself? There's an almost charmingly naive assumption that, until now, the only thing keeping an ad agency in business in their ability to operate a camera, or to use PhotoShop. Because the internet has the ability to turn individual creative sparks into global phenomena, we can all do it - and thanks to Blogger, Twitter and Facebook anyone can create an online presence.
I am one of the first people to denounce the preciousness in advertising creativity. It is not a cure for cancer, and the fact that agencies are cabs for hire means we can seldom claim moral worth in the ad campaigns that spill across the media landscape. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean there is no skill involved - and the risk in the fact that "anyone can do it" is just that: your campaign will look like it could have been done by anyone.
Which brings me to the Labour party's "people's poster" campaign, which this week backfired in pretty spectactular fashion. The theory must have looked great and really 'of the moment': instead of wasting money on a big ad agency, members of the public would put forward ideas, and the best would be used as an actual campaigning poster. Saves money and gets supporters involved - a win-win. Given some of the amusing content generated by sites such as www.mydavidcameron.com - driven by word-of-Facebook - you can see why the idea was attractive.
And the winner was:
Although this was supposedly the "People's Poster", the fact that its released coincided with the start of the final series of Ashes to Ashes, leads me to believe it may not have been created by a member of the public at all. But let's run with it, and assume the Cameron-as-Gene-Hunt idea was a bona fide suggestion. I'm not actually that interested in why it was a terrible concept - and that analysis has been done to death elsewhere. But by assuming the wisdom of an online crowd is an exact substitute for the collective brain-power of an ad agency actually shows not so much a lack of faith in their creativity, but a failure to use their agency properly.
An ad agency will take a brief to deliver an objective. The creative is the means to the end - to inspire people to do whatever it is you want them to do - and so, in this case, the "people's poster" process, by making the creative into the end itself, gets the cart before the horse. Maybe the answer isn't a poster (and it almost certainly isn't in today's market with Labour's diminished ad budget), maybe it's not an ad at all. Agency and client will challenge each other's ideas, using the objective as fixed point of reference, and hopefully arrive at a solution that delivers the objective. By removing the agency, and reducing the briefing to a "who can make the funniest joke about David Cameron" competition, the objective vanished and Labour's sense-checking partner wasn't there.
Both the "Twitter nephew" and "people's poster" stories are born of rather old fashioned ideas of advertising, and advertising agencies - the place where you go to waste half your money, in Lord Beaverbrook's immortal phrase. The real revolution online media delivers is explicit measurability of the outcome of your campaign; whereas once you had to guess how many eyeballs saw your ad, today you gather fans' names and addresses via your facebook page, YouTube movie or, maybe, Chatroulette routine. You work together, sharing intelligence and insight to meet commonly-held objectives. And if you want to do that on your own, you're like the man defending himself in court, who has an idiot for a client.
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