Should agencies use competing products of their client?

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There’s much hue & cry in the blogosphere about one facet of the ‘I am PC’ ads. Apparently a part of the ads were created using a Mac by the agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Microsoft had posted some pictures from the campaign on their site – four of the images display the designation “Adobe Photoshop C3 Macintosh” when their file properties are examined. A Flickr user originally posted the data and apparently the data was removed in a day – but the PR damage has been done. Crispin Porter + Bogusky was profiled on Apple’s Pro site as an enthusiastic user of Macs, and the profile was later pulled from Apple Canada’s website. There are views for and against the practice of the advertising agency using a competitor’s product to create the campaign.


The crux of the debate: how can you persuade consumers to switch to PC and create ads on a Mac? Loyalty towards the brand that you advertise for is a good thing. If you are advertising for say Acer laptops, it pays to use them yourself. If the client from Pepsi turns up at your office, it doesn’t make sense to serve him Coke. If you advertise for a candy brand it is indecent to brandish a competitor’s brand in the client’s office. That’s common sense. But can the argument be stretched too far? What is being said about Crispin using Macs to create the PC ads is tantamount to saying, ‘you can’t drink a Coke while creating the Pepsi ads’.

The other side of the argument is that one must truly live & breathe the client’s brand i.e if you are not using the client’s products & services how can you persuade others to try them. This side argues that its dishonest to preach one thing and practice something else. There is merit in that too. Try handling the Airtel account and giving your client a Vodafone number. It won’t go down well The other angle to this issue is ‘who pays for what’. If the client is backing the agency fully in financial terms it is stupid not to use his product. Like in the case of Enfatico – the agency set up for Dell – hiding their iMacs when Micahel Dell visited them.

Advertising agency giants like David Ogilvy made it a point to use their client’s products. It’s bad PR if the client catches the agency head using his competing brand. But how far can you stretch this? IBM is a key global client of O&M. But I am sure they use Macs in their offices. If so, should IBM fire the agency? TBWA/Chiat Day creates ads for Apple which poke fun at Microsoft’s products. Does it mean that there should be no instance of some TBWA staffer using a Microsoft product (say, Entourage to check mail) while creating the ads?

Almost all the creative folks I know who come up with anti-smoking ads are heavy smokers themselves. Yes, there is hypocrisy in all this. Our job is to convince a potential user to take action or evoke a response. This is best done by using the product and understanding what’s its all about. But our brand portfolio spans different categories and user groups. If I am advertising for an inexpensive brand of suits, I need to understand what would motivate the potential buyer to try this product. Yes, it would help if I could use it myself. But that is not a primary requisite – how I understand the category and the consumer is more important. But I can earn the client’s respect if I wore his brand of suits for the meeting.

I think client’s by and large understand that the agency cannot be expected to be tied to his product and his product only. But from the agency’s point of view it pays to be the brand user and the creator of advertising. Any views on this?

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  1. If caught with pants down- “we’re using competiton to understand its weakness”- and therefore might stumble upon an Insight .

  2. I totally agree with your point that it is not necessary to actually use a particular product to understand it better. But yes, it is always better if we make sure the client doesn’t come to know that we are using the competition products. And according to me, no advertiser, for that matter no marketeer should try to sell the product, always the benefit of the product has to be sold. And for this, the advertiser may have to get the feel of the product once or twice and not necessarily be a regular consumer of the same!

  3. Biju, Chetan – thanks. I am not even referring to ‘make sure the client comes to know’ etc. that is being dishonest. There is an inherent hypocrisy in ‘promoting’ something and using something else.

  4. I think most of us forget that we are partners in the business of selling. Our job doesn’t end with creating an ad. There should be some interest in the entire job as well. For that, I think we should be fans of the brands we work for. There is more fun in this business if we convert ourselves into fans even before we try to talk to the customer. I am afraid, thats something which I so terribly miss.

  5. Gitanjali, well said. Immersing in the product means forgetting who we are, whether it is meant for us and in some way believing in it. But don’t you think it is a constraint if you are forced to use that brand that brand only? What if I own a Ford and my agency then gets a competing brand?

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