The Positioning Smokescreen

It’s no coincidence that this post comes at the end of Cannes Week.  If you follow us on Twitter you’ll know that we’re not the biggest fans of the International Festival of Bullshit, Scam and Money-Making, to give it its proper title. Anything that bills itself as the “epicentre of the creative economy” is best given a wide berth in our book.

I’d rather gouge my eyes out with a blunt spoon than spend a week listening to people incessantly spouting hot air about subjects that are often, at best, only tangentially relevant to the real business of making effective and successful advertising for our clients (having said all that, I was gutted to miss out on the ‘Badass Leaders’ talk from Akon...).

There’s way too much emphasis on technology, way too much emphasis on what’s going to happen in the future? and way too much self-serving, promotional propaganda and bandwagon-jumping backslapping. It almost seems that “advertising” is a dirty word that nobody really mentions any more.  It’s all about “creativity” now.  

However the “creativity” that is talked about is not really one I fully recognise and often bears no relation to any actual creative output that inhabits the real world. 

The “creativity” that is discussed at Cannes seems to be some kind of abstract construct. A mythical beast, magical formula or Holy Grail that can be instantly discovered and then used forever more after attending a couple of talks by a few people in pink shorts and loafers.

Well, the rather mundane news is that there is no magical formula or secret behind “creativity”. It’s available to any business, anywhere in the world and can be easily achieved by taking the relatively simple decision to entrust great creative people to come up with great creative ideas.

This, I accept, is by no means a headline-grabbing revelation.

However, it’s shocking how completely out of reach this is for so many agencies and clients.

Part of the problem is that agencies themselves have swallowed their own Kool-Aid that they have been dispensing to clients about brand love and brand purpose. They have been so self-obsessed with their own image and so blindly desperate to force competitive advantage by trying to own spurious and meaningless points of difference that they have forgotten that it’s ultimately their creative end product which should be their major selling point to clients.

I point to the recent embarrassing nonsense proclamations coming out of Ogilvy following their, ahem, refounding project. Apparently this exercise took them two years and they’ve ended up with a very slightly different font without the “& Mather” bit. Fuck knows how many hours and pounds were burnt in pursuit of this unworthy goal.

Since this refounding, Ogilvy (but not Mather) have been telling the world and his wife all about this monumental event using only jargon and gobbledygook to explain their thinking.

It’s a modern disease for big agencies to have their own marketing departments who want to steal the oxygen and take the limelight with stories which very rarely have anything do with the actual work. In this case, I can’t actually remember any recent Ogilvy campaigns that have had anywhere near as much PR airtime as their own rebranding sideshow.

If culture eats strategy for breakfast then surely when it comes to what is more important for clients, product eats positioning every time food is on the table and the greedy bastard also stuffs its face with it in between meals.

I appreciate that last turn of phrase might not exactly catch fire but any clients that genuinely want their marketing communications to be successful over the long term should look beyond and behind an agency’s positioning to look at an agency’s product first.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for clients to be seduced by a set of soundbites or beliefs all backed up by some unique, proprietary process that promises brand fame, cultural resonance, game-changing consumer behaviour, competitive disruption, supercharged business performance, everlasting life, etc, etc.

You only need to do a trawl of the ‘About’ section on most agency websites to realise that most of these soundites are hollow claims that bear very little resemblance or connection to the creative work that is also on the site.

Let’s take TBWA for example. They’ve been banging the Disruption drum for longer than most now. You’d hope such a clear positioning would be reflected and manifested in everything they do but I’m scratching my head and struggling to see that from the work that’s on their current reel. Gems like PlayStation, FCUK and Wonderbra would allow them to at least substantiate that positioning but they weren’t even produced in the last decade…   

The reality is that the vast majority of agencies aren’t really that different from each other at all in terms of the services that they offer, how they’re structured, how they work and the kind of work that they do.

To compensate for this they delude themselves by rallying behind the security blanket of a ‘magic gold dust’ positioning which they believe makes them genuinely different and, therefore, irresistible to any prospective client.

As an aside, a consultant, who shall remain nameless, once advised us to better define and sharpen our agency positioning. We wanted to let our work and the case studies behind them speak for themselves and were reluctant to get into a lengthy process of navel-gazing as we believed that potential clients would either get what we were about and like our work, or they wouldn’t. And we were totally fine with that.

When we probed this in more detail, we were given an example of an agency that had a very compelling and different positioning that had a clear hook that makes them easier to sell to clients. In fairness, that agency, who also shall remain nameless, did have a very clear hook but they hadn’t done any decent creative work since opening their doors and that work didn’t bear any resemblance to the positioning they were pushing. A year later they were no longer in business.  

Ultimately, great agencies are defined by and remembered for their product, and not their positionings. Nobody looks back and says “well, CDP’s maginificently differentiated positioning was clearly the main reason that they cleaned up in the 1970’s”.

The likes of CDP, DDB, CDP, Ally & Gargano, Chiat Day, BMP, AMV, BBH, Lowe’s, GGT, Wieden & Kennedy, HHCL, Mother are so massively respected in the annals of the advertising business because they had a fanatical devotion to producing great creative work which they duly delivered upon.

Another common thread amongst those agencies is that they were at their best when they had an unfair share of outstanding creative; a density of talent that most agencies can only dream of these days.

When it comes down to it, the major difference between agencies lies in the quality of people that they employ and not in the form of words they use to summarise their positioning.

It’s this human aspect of employing good people to come up with and then execute great ideas that separates the great from the good from the grim.

Significant investment in great creative talent is an absolute rarity these days. It seems like there been a conscious culling of brilliant experienced creatives to save money and help the bottom line, agencies preferring to pursue a “quantity over quality” approach by stocking departments full of juniors prepared to uncomplainingly churn out route after route regardless of their merits.

Unsurprisingly, the end product these days is now less Fabergé Egg and more Kinder Egg. I can’t see that changing in the future now that agencies are choosing to entrust creativity to giant crowdsourcing tools names after French mime artists. 

There’s a school of thought in our business that creativity is some kind of hygiene factor and level playing field. This is madness.

It’s absolutely bonkers to think that all agencies are equally capable, even if there is a much of muchness to the creative work that is going largely unnoticed or polluting our lives. There’s a massive gap in terms of quality of thinking and craft between the top 2% of work and everything else.

Herein lies another problem. The aforementioned density of talent just doesn’t exist any more. Once upon a time the best agency creative departments were jam-packed with outstanding creatives across the board. That meant clients usually had a very good chance at hitting the bullseye and getting a great campaign out. Now, it’s much more of a lottery and they’re lucky if they can even hit the dartboard as they’re blindfolded, looking in the wrong direction and have a wet sponge instead of a sharp, pointy arrow to aim with.

This brings me back to the work again and the people behind it.

I think an interesting new business exercise would be for agencies to compile a reel of the five ads that they had done in the last year that they were least satisfied with. That way, clients would be able to get a feel for the overall creative standards of the agency and not just the showcase shiny work that the agency wants you to see.

All agencies can compile a greatest hits showreel and wow clients with their jazz hands and artificial chemistry when they are on their best behaviour. But how many can truly say that their work is consistently good and effective?

What’s the turnover level of agency staff and clients? What are their longest relationships? Are the people responsible for the work on the reel still working at the agency?

If agency brands were really powerful and their positionings were so special and compelling then I imagine that there would be a lot less pitching going on. But that certainly isn’t the case in the current climate.

It’s high time for agencies to stop hiding behind their positionings and start worrying more about their product rather than their brand.

When the tide turns and the next creative revolution happens, the only competitive advantage left will be how good your ideas are not how good your agency positioning is.

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