Consistency vs change: the eternal struggle in marketing & advertising

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In 2016, consulting company R3 Worldwide carried a report on ‘40 client-agency relationships that have stood the test of time‘. While the average length of the top 40 relationships was a commendable 22 years, the benchmark was 3.2 years. It would be interesting to see if there have been any major changes four years hence and know of the average client-agency tenure today. One can safely bet that a majority of client-agency relationships are short-lived. It is common for the cycle of ‘pitch-few campaigns and a fresh pitch’ to be the industry norm.  

The urge for change is also seen in jobs and brand campaign ideas. In 2018, the average CMO tenure at 100 of the top U.S. ad spenders was at 43 months, according to WSJ. Even across other functions and levels it common to view a 2-3 stint in a job as a ‘long time’. I am not saying that is necessarily a bad thing but just different from the mindset a few years ago. It also seems to be a given that brands will change their theme campaign every year, especially if a new brand team is in place. Of course, a communication refresh or a new expression of a creative idea maybe a necessity so that fatigue doesn’t set in. But a default ‘let’s change everything’ mindset may not be necessary or even a good thing for both client-agency relationships and brand campaigns.

Hallmarks of client-agency relationships 

Why do some client-agency relationships work for a long period? What makes them tick? In my view, the key elements include trust, involvement of senior management, sound communication strategy, a commitment to make the relationship to work on both sides and needless to add, an effective creative output. Ultimately it all boils down to the work- it is often said that the consumer doesn’t get to see the strategy document. 

Another factor in play could have been the process of choosing an ad agency in the decades gone by. One reads of client-side CEOs personally involved in the advertising process and building a rapport with the agency-side CEO. The famous Avis campaign was one such which cemented the relationship with its agency. Trust in the ability of the ad agency and respect for each others skills seems to have been a common factor. The practice of speculative pitches to choose an agency was seen in the 90s too but the competition was among a very small group of agencies. It has become worse over the years with agencies desperate to pitch for free and clients inviting a huge lineup of agencies. In such a process, I wonder if there is any emotional investment in the ‘chosen one’ or if everyone is treated like just another vendor of a commodity like paper clips. Of course, even with relationships which have lasted for decades, there may be valid reasons from the client’s perspective to move on. 

Some long running client-agency relationships include: Nike – W+K, Apple – TBWA\Chiat\Day, Unilever – Lintas, Titan Watches – Ogilvy, Amul – FCB Ulka, Amul – da Cunha Associates, Pidilite Industries (Fevicol) – Ogilvy, Volkwagen – DDB, Burger King – CP+B, John Lewis – adam&eveDDB among others.

In 2018, Campbell Soup Company ended its relationship with BBDO which started in 1954. Manulife, which operates as John Hancock in the US hired Deloitte Digital’s Heat as its global creative agency replacing Interpublic Group’s Hill Holliday after 32 years. I am not aware of the reasons why these accounts moved but generally speaking, a combination of reasons would be at play. The agency may not have met expectations in creative output, strategic inputs or day to day operations. It could also be a relationship issue without quality interactions at the senior level. Accounts are also known to move because the client may perceive the agency to lack skill sets suited for the business or the market conditions or simply because the new CMO wants ‘change’.  

It must be acknowledged though that market conditions are vastly different now for all business. Competition is steep, media clutter is high, the consumer is lot more aware, fickle and brand’s are expected to react to opportunities or issues quickly. In turn the demands on the agency are also different and everything is expected in double quick time. Such pressures may take a toll on quality, senior management time and generally make all stakeholders impatient and itching for change. 

Stable partnerships bring out the best

We live in a world where a client’s marketing team is likely to posses skill sets such as consumer research, brand planning, analytics and so on. Increasingly client teams also create content in-house and even have UI/UX specialists and developers as part of the brand team. A key skill that many outsource to a specialist creative agency because they can’t do it all themselves is crafting a creative idea and having it executed – which often involves the big, thematic TV commercial as a centrepiece. 

In this context, everyone is competition for a traditional ad agency – from a boutique social media agency to a content production house; anyone can take away potential business. In this context, working with a fear of a pitch being called anytime soon is not the best of situations for the agency team. They need to be confident that they can focus on creating what’s right for the brand rather than worrying about the state of the relationship. Of course, both teams need to work hard at it. The client team cannot give vibes that the agency is dispensable and ought to treat them as brand partners. The agency has to earn that confidence cannot be complacent that come what may their revenue is secure. The biggest trigger for the sea change in relationships started in the 90s with the hiving of specialist media agencies and the shift from a media commission to a retainer fee model. But that’s a subject for another article. 

Brand positioning, creative idea and creative expression 

Another aspect of advertising is the urge to change campaign ideas ever so often. Going by the playbook, the steps involve defining the brand positioning, crafting a big creative idea, refreshing and tweaking the creative idea to suit the medium. 

A classic example of this approach would be that of Snickers, which positioned itself as an in-between meal hunger buster. The creative idea based on the insight that people act out character when irritable with hunger was ‘you are not you when you’re hungry‘. The creative expression was then taken forward in TV commercials, social media, outdoor and tactical print ads with each one making the best use of the medium. These include an outdoor idea where signs were deliberately executed poorly and Twitter campaign where celebrities tweeted out of character

A few examples of of long running campaign ideas:

Nike: Just Do It
Absolut Vodka: Absolut World
Dove – Real Beauty
Surf/Persil: Dirt is good
Santoor soap: mistaken identity
KitKat: Have a break, have a KitKat
Tata Tea: Jaago Re

However, very few brands have a clear long-term positioning and an overarching brand idea and a compelling, single-minded creative idea. New age brands, e.g. all-in-one super apps probably need a series of tactical ads. It would help if all of these were tied together with a common idea.

A dilemma which ad agencies face is to be consistently good with a successful, effective creative idea over the years. As with movie franchises, the sequels always have a tough ask – they have to better the previous version. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that whatever idea was put out in media should never be changed. If the idea does not deliver on goals set out – be it in terms of brand equity or sales, corrective action needs to be taken. In categories where product differentiation is pretty much non-existent and advertising imagery or idea is an edge a brand can have over competition (think Coke vs Pepsi) the advertising cannot convey a ‘same old, same old’ cue. 

Another subliminal reason for change (for change’s sake?) is the fatigue that sets in the brand team’s minds after working on the same idea for years. It could also apply to digital design teams who create a ‘look book’ which is consistent across screens & mediums. 

Some examples of distinctive brand voice and visual identity:

The Economist

The benefits of consistency in brand message & identity 

Long runnings campaigns with consistency of execution, brand voice and brand look give a competitive edge to brands which may not apparent in the short term. Over time, it builds trust, familiarity and eventually affinity. Consumers seek assurance that their choice is right – a familiar look and feel, consistent brand elements or messaging provides them that. When campaign ideas go on to become part of popular culture finding mention in movies, TV shows (e.g. Wendy’s ‘Where’s the beef?’) etc., the PR value is immeasurable. 

’Don’t outspend competition, outwit them’ was the mantra of the ad agency Trikaya Advertising. Investing in effective long-term agency relationship and crafting a sharp, differentiating positioning backed with a big creative idea can help in creating disproportionate impact in the marketplace. 

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