The Problem Is Quality (Or Lack Thereof)

Occasionally I’ll be reading something about principles of great advertising and I’ll wonder why they aren’t just followed by everyone.

Why don’t clients want ads that don’t look like ads?
Why do they want big logos when all they do is make you turn the page?
Why don’t people want and support clean layouts?
Why do people try to put across fourteen messages at once?
Why do people feel so much more inclined to make the kind of ads that will not stand out or provoke any real engagement?

Well, I think there are several reasons for this:

People who approve ads want to keep their jobs, and it’s much easier to do that with inoffensive beige work than startling, innovative work.
One man’s ‘startling and innovative’ is another man’s ‘inoffensive and beige’.
People don’t care enough.
Time and budget squeezes.
People involved in the process do not know what the fuck they are doing

It is this last one to which I turn today.
I think it’s really hard for the industry to admit, but most people who create ads aren’t actually very good at it. This means that when you are trying to persuade a client to do something, reassuring them that the risk is worth taking because the work will be so good, you might well be wrong.

I recall a TV ad I made where we were going to use an amazing post technique that the director had been developing. The director had great past form in this area and we felt confident about trusting him. Unfortunately, when we got the ad back, the technique was, shall we say, somewhat disappointing (shit). So then we had to go back to the client with smiles on our faces trying to persuade them that this was what we had tried to achieve and it was a cause for celebration, not disappointment. I’d say that the director wasn’t really good enough, but I’d also say we weren’t good enough either. We were unable to deliver on a promise we made to ensure that the technique would be as wonderful as we promised.

Sorry, Client X.

I like to think I’ve improved since then, but looking across the wide world of advertising, it strikes me that, as with every other industry in the world, 90% of us are not that good. Sure, we might be capable of excellence on occasion, but there just aren’t enough people who reliably produce excellence every time they get a brief.

You might be a good art director, but you’re not Paul Belford, Dave Dye or Mark Reddy. You might be a decent copywriter, but are you Tim Riley? Mary Wear? Nigel Roberts?

So many people (and I’m including account people, planners and MDs here) might well produce work that is mainly OK with a few flashes of brilliance on a good day. And yet we are employed to deliver the goods on a constant basis. In theory clients pay us a lot of money for greatness. The fact they they often end up with OK-ness might be why they don’t trust us to create a layout which has never been seen before. How many of us are capable of producing a really good one? No wonder they want their ads to look like ads: better a mediocre ad (they think) than an awful attempt at originality that might get them fired.

When I hear people talk about these principles of brilliance they are almost always people like Trott, Krone and Clow – people who have delivered that brilliance time and again.

But it’s one thing to agree with what they say, and quite another to manage to deliver it. Years of disappointment have led us to this cul-de-sac where you’d have to be mad to trust that your advertising problem would be solved with a work of genius by 9/10 of the agencies in the world.

A quick test: you have a new product to launch and an ad budget of £500,000. You have worked in advertising for a number of years. What’s your next move?