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Adland's Messiah Complex

13 Jan 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
Adland's Messiah Complex

Peddled in forums like Cannes where the need to virtue signal is paramount, the idea that adland can collectively change the world is growing. But any impact it can make is right at the margins, argues Dominic Mills. Plus: the heroes and duds of Christmas advertising, and new industry jargon.

The Messiah Complex is a term used to describe people who think that they, and they alone, can save the world from itself — if only they can persuade other people to see the light.

Obsessed by their visions of doomsday they often start off with the best of motives, pure and benign, but as their particular dystopian vision unfolds, they descend into hell and take their followers with them.

Quasi-religious ‘prophets’ like Jim Jones (of Jonestown Massacre fame) and David Koresh (of the Waco siege) fall into this category. So do some politicians — Nigel Farage might be one example. Some might say Uri Geller has a mild form of Messiah Complex.

And now I’m wondering if the ad industry is heading this way. Why? First, it’s the alacrity with which, semi-collectively, elements of adland have fallen in with the Extinction Rebellion movement.

Don’t get me wrong — I have no problems with individuals supporting XR; but the message that is conveyed is that, as an industry, adland’s skills in framing and communicating have some role to play in averting climate catastrophe. I don’t really buy this. There are simple things adland can do, such as reduce its own carbon impact in areas like offices, travel and the ad production supply chain. All well and good, but these are marginal differences.

But now the debate is shifting onto altogether more problematic ground, as evidenced by one of the questions posed last week at Mediatel’s Year Ahead. I’m paraphrasing it, but essentially it was this: if the planet’s future depends on consuming less and recycling more, does the industry’s role need to change and how?

On the surface this is a reasonable question. And it is not as if this has come from nowhere. In the last year, way beyond big P Purpose, I get an increasing sense that the industry is torturing itself, bearing the weight of the world (to borrow from Messiah Complex terminology) for its role in promoting consumerism.

But where this question leads is dangerous because what it implies is that adland must persuade its clients that they need to sell less. How does that work?

Let’s say a consumer goods company approaches its agency of record with a new-product launch, and the agency says, ‘You know what, we recommend you bin it because the world doesn’t need another xxx product.” That doesn’t make any sense, and it completely undercuts the main purpose of advertising — which is to help clients build profitable and sustainable (in the widest sense of the word) businesses.

And yet this idea that advertising can collectively change the world persists, peddled strongly in forums like Cannes where the collective need to virtue signal and salve troubled consciences fills the air (especially after delegates have racked up all those carbon-heavy air miles).

That is not to say that the industry has no social responsibility. Of course it does, whether it’s promoting equality, ending stereotyping or supporting ethical publishers.

But the responsibility to change the world rests on governments, either directly or indirectly elected bodies, and individuals (whether they act alone or collectively). And if advertisers and the industry want to change my world with better products and services (which may or may not be carbon-friendly), then I’m fine with that. But for agencies to claim that they have a responsibility to help clients sell less is a step too far.

Two things before I move on to more (relative) mundane matters. One, the Messiah Complex is dangerous because it leads to authoritarianism…and it never ends well. And two, this is the first time I’ve articulated my thoughts on this issue; if someone can persuade me I’m seeing it wrong, I’m open to debate.

Christmas dregs (and stars)

Hmmm, well the general sense from the first round of trading figures issued by the retailers last week is that Christmas was a bit of a disaster for retailers. But not for everyone, which I’ll come to in a moment.

And for adland, the read-across is not good. Two of the most high-profile and well-regarded campaigns of the period — John Lewis and Argos — turned out to be duds sales-wise, and perhaps led to the ejection of Paula Nickolds from the former.

M&S produced two fab clothing unit ads (for sweaters and children’s pyjamas) but they weren’t enough to add any lustre to its struggling non-food business, where revenues dropped 3.7pc.

I’m now formulating a new rule for retailer Christmas reporting: when the CEO tells you how sales of hero products featured in the ads performed, you know the overall picture is grim. Thus M&S’s Steve Rowe trumpeting that sales of women’s jumpers rose by 6pc, men’s by 7pc and pyjamas by 10pc, means everything else was crap.

The same trick applies to Argos parent Sainsbury’s, which was keen to tell us that sales of easy-peeler clementines as featured in its Xmas ad extravaganza hit 34m, a sure example of whistling into the wind. I’m not sure what average easy-peeler consumption of clementines per head was over Christmas, but judging by my family’s (50 or so), 34m doesn’t sound like a lot. The reality is that it had a disappointing Christmas, with supermarket sales up just 0.4pc.

But let’s hear it for two unlikely Christmas heroes. One is Dunelm, which reported like-for-likes up 5.6pc for the quarter up to December 28. Its ads tend to get lost in all the John Lewis/Tesco/Aldi/Lidl hype around Christmas, but obviously are doing the business.

The second is Next, also unfashionable as a retailer and advertiser, which reported sales up 5pc for the period to 28 December. Here’s its Christmas effort, which seems to have passed the adland chatterati (that includes me) by completely.

Are they the beneficiaries of good retailing, good advertising, or both? It’s clearly early days, but when the Christmas campaign post-mortems start, some hard questions will be asked. And next year we may see some retailers take different approaches.

New jargon

New jobs bring new jargon (actually sometimes just old jargon in new bottles) with them, and there’s few fields newer or more jargon-tastic than diversity and inclusion (or D&I to the HR trade).

Last week WPP jumped on this bandwagon big time, hiring a global diversity guru called Adrianne Smith. I won’t argue about the need for diversity, but whether it is better imposed by diktat from HQ (quotas and all that) or handled organically on the ground seems to me to be a moot point.

I expect there will be more than a few grumpy WPP staff in the operating companies wondering why they have to support yet another expensive holding company overhead as their own resources are put under pressure.

And some of them may need a jargon translator as and when they have to deal with Ms Smith and her boss, head of culture Judy Jackson.

Here’s Jackson throwing all the management lingo at it: "Adrianne will be the conduit to build alignment across our inclusion and diversity strategy, leverage learnings and the effective practices across brands while establishing accountability for our combined success. She will work with leadership, client teams, our talent community and external partners in creating an aligned sense of purpose, and will be a trusted partner around our inclusion and diversity agenda globally.”

And here’s Smith mixing NASA-engineer speak with wokiness: “My goal is to get WPP to the point of escape velocity as it pertains to equity, inclusion and diversity—meaning the point of no return for bad industry habits.”

You wonder if they’ll ever learn that this sort of speech is a turn-off.

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VicDavies, Course Leader and Senior Lecturer, Bucks New University on 13 Jan 2020
“Re The Messiah Complex, what agency ever stood up and said ' Well, we have had this idea, which you might like, but we are not sure'. Part of the self doubt the Industry is currently trying to mask is that old certainties don't work like they used to., which is causing a crisis of confidence, which in turns leads to jumping on whatever bandwagon you think might make you look relevant, from 'purpose' to 'diversity'. But instead of trying to be on trend, why don't agencies look to what they are good at? Which brings me to all those Christmas ads. In the past , the mere use of TV as medium has been used to imply that these campaigns were sort of branding ads, implicitly meaning that they do things digital and other forms of marketing communications, like instore and CRM cannot do, they propel the brand onwards long after last Christmas ads have been packed away. But do they ? What they appear to do is sell stuff featured in ads, which in itself is good -- advertising does move stuff off shelves. But in an age where retail is morphing to a hybrid with many touchpoints, it cannot redress the resultant strategic shifts in consumer behavioural, or shift perceptions of retail organisations, that have grown up via poor client culture and business thinking, just by running 'fun' ads on a medium with declining reach. Agencies could play a more strategic role in getting clients to understand this new landscape, but that would require them to be something they are currently not, but which some of them attempt to play at by talking about 'consultancy' and 'brand thinking', which is the corridor next to the doors that have 'purpose' and 'diversity' on them. In the 2020s agencies will have to reshape what they are, recognise that they need new skills , not just buzz words, if they want to stay relevant into the middle of 21st century.”