‘Do you ask your doctor for options?’ I remember advertising bosses I have interacted with, asking some clients this question. The point they wanted to make was that one rarely questions the wisdom and the considered recommendation of a ‘specialist’. But do clients view advertising professionals as specialists? Will they ever? There was a time when the CEO of the ad agency had a strong equation with the client-side CEO (who was hands on too with the advertising strategy & process). There could be a few such equations even today (maybe at levels below the CEO) where there is mutual respect and the agency’s recommendation is considered a ‘specialist’ one.
Advertising is both an art and science. Since it is geared towards persuading consumers, I guess it is more of an art than science. Unlike pure art which is simply a means of personal creative expression, this art has a commercial angle to it. So it cannot be just art for art’s sake – it has to deliver a commercial goal, often within many ‘constraints’. The constraints typically are about being relevant to an audience, delivering a single-minded message and meeting a business goal. In that context, advertising professionals have a really tough job at hand. They cannot take a ‘this is my creative expression, take it or leave it’ attitude which is open to writers, poets, painters and other artists.
Another hallmark of a specialist is special terminology which is specific to that profession – ask doctors, legal professionals, techies. Even in the creative industry, whenever there are technicians involved there is a technical language involved which conveys ‘expertise’ or ‘specialist’. A UX or web designer can talk about VIMM based design principles, using Gestalt principles to design for visual attention, visual affordance test, task flow diagrams, cognitive processing and so on. The ad film industry has specific technical terms which call for formal education, training and knowledge. Such ‘technical knowledge’ expressed in industry-specific words don’t have any ambiguity or vagueness about them. They convey that the user is speaking from a position of knowledge and authority on the subject.
In contrast, advertising folks have to contend with vagueness galore. How do you counter ‘there is no wow factor in this film script’? Or ‘mazaa nahi aaya’ (‘that wasn’t much fun’) as reaction to a packaging design? There is no specific, technical term we can use to counter such vague, subjective feedback. Worse still, there isn’t likely to be a scientific methodology behind the creation of the product. Creative pundits who’ve earned their reputation may not be given such vague responses but such scenarios are common in ad agency life. So will the ad industry ever gain the status of a specialist? What’s the way out?
A version of this post was published in Medium.