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Dominic Mills 

A year to forget… but also to remember

A year to forget… but also to remember

Dominic Mills offers his year in review, as he celebrates re-invention whilst considering what would be 'useful' about the year ahead.

It’s that time of the year. The annual end-of-year review. And it is, of course, an entirely artificial mark. A third lockdown looms. Covid carries on, ignoring datelines. So does Brexit, also rendering deadlines redundant.

Nonetheless, this part of December provides an opportunity to take stock, think about the good and the bad, and see if there is a way to hang on to the former and jettison the latter.

You can read other versions from Marketing Week, Campaign and Brian Jacobs.

Mostly, and taking the longer view, it’s a time to be optimistic about the state of the industry; if it can sustain them, some of its new behaviours — all forged, it must be said, in the fire of adversity — make it better fit for purpose.

Let’s start by celebrating the new-found agility and resilience of both agencies and clients.

At a stroke, many of the sclerotic practices so beloved of the industry — endless meetings, over-populated meetings, meetings without decisions, last-minute decisions, ever-changing decisions, over-thinking problems, extended process, process for process’s sake — have been reduced, if not banished. When needs must, things change. Fast and flexible is good.

Talking of new ways of working, Unilever has embarked on a four-day-week experiment in its New Zealand offices, trialling it for a year before seeing if it can be rolled out elsewhere.

The idea has been around for a while and I know some small agencies that have adopted it. Bigger agencies have been wary — understandably so since it makes relationship-managing difficult — but if Unilever and then other clients adopt it first, they may follow suit.

However, the downside of efficient/virtual working, as one practitioner put it to me, is that relationships have become more transactional.

New ones have become harder to build and those built on so-called ‘weak ties’ are harder to sustain, especially when you can’t read body language.

But on the plus side, it may be that 2020 marks the beginning of the end of the pointless pitch.

When you can top Campaign’s new-business league with billings gains of less than £50 million — and creep into the top ten, as one media agency did, with a gain of £2 million — you know many clients decided the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. I don’t doubt that this is the result of a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ mindset.

And while the Darwinian cull of agencies that some predicted has not come to pass — that is not to say it won’t at some point — we have seen many who see opportunity when others see threat.

There’s been a profusion of agency launches, from James Murphy’s NCA to ScienceMagic, Biltzworks and Mother spin-off Other. They are all, in their own ways, products of our time — you’d be crazy to launch a copycat of a traditional-style agency — and reflect the changed climate.

To me, this ability to re-invent and evolve — shedding old skin for new, if you like — has always been one of the virtues of the industry and make reporting on it a joy.

But…and it is big but…if there is a dearth of pitches then they have to find other ways to generate work.

Let’s hear it too for the trade bodies, from the AA, ISBA and the IPA to the likes of Thinkbox, Magnetic and Newsworks.

They have bravely stepped up to the plate, working hard not just for their members but also, in many cases, to advance knowledge across the spectrum — exemplified by ISBA’s work in conjunction with PwC on untangling the spaghetti stew of programmatic.

As Brian Jacobs points out, plaudits are also due to media owners who, under severe financial pressure, have continued to fund their generic marketing operations.

One initiative, led by Magnetic, has focused on attention as a metric with significance for everyone. In fact, it’s so bleedin’ obvious that attention matters, you wonder why the industry has been so late to the party.

Magnetic talking magazine covers — about 2.30 minutes in during this video announcing its awards — also made me smile.

Let’s hear a round of applause too for the AA-led initiative on advertising and sustainability.

Three things impressed me:

  1. The speed with which the AA acted on this and brought different parts of the industry together.
  2. Its output avoided sanctimonious hand-wringing and meaningless statements of intent to focus on offering the industry useful tools and examples, not least a carbon calculator.
  3. It was wise enough to bring in the likes of The Purpose Disruptors — the militant wing of advertising environmentalism, if you like — to make its contribution, notably in the form of progress towards an ‘eco-ffective’ — horrible word, but it sort of does the job — metric that seeks to measure a return on advertising/marketing in terms of CO2 emissions.

Which brings me to brand purpose, a subject to which I have historically shown antipathy and which, as when Ben and Jerry’s teenage social media team trolled Priti Patel over migrants, can set my teeth on edge.

But I detect a sea-change in the way brands approach purpose today: less pointless grand-standing — usually words trumping action — and more focus on being useful.

The point here is that ‘useful’, which involves different things for different brands, is what we want and need.

Useful can mean a focus on sustainability, turning idle production facilities over to hand-sanitiser manufacturing, or supporting local communities on larger but defined societal problems (Heinz and the Magic Breakfast charity).

My fellow columnist, Jan Gooding, writes about brand activism here, and makes the clear point that sometimes it’s better for brands to ‘do’ before the ‘showing’.

Kantar’s Brand Z work this year has some thought-provoking stuff and makes the point that consumer expectations of corporate responsibility have increased dramatically and, importantly, go well beyond sustainability and the environment.

Personally, I’d like to see the definition of ‘useful’ extended to decent and fair corporate citizenship, which means paying taxes and refunding government help if it proves not to be needed.

I saw this John Lewis poster in-store last week.

‘Committed to Better’, it says, with small print underneath explaining that John Lewis likes to ‘consider the communities around our stores and…always look to improve our social and environmental impact’.

Yeah, well improving social impact to me includes repaying some of rates relief it received. Of all businesses, you’d think John Lewis would get this. Things must be worse than they look from the outside.

You know that the industry’s attempts to improve ethnic representation in advertising have improved beyond all bounds when, as with Sainsbury’s Christmas ads, they provoke a racist backlash.

I used to notice ads — ok, it’s part of my job to look out for these things —when they showed minority ethnic cast members; it was the rarity value. Now I notice them when they don’t and the cast is all-white.

But I fear the same cannot be said for the industry’s efforts to improve diversity, whether by race or social background, on the other side of the screen — ie in agencies and marketing departments. That’s because, when the recruitment shutters come down, as they inevitably have, the old ways will re-assert themselves.

Perhaps the same too goes for age.

A contact said to me in the summer — before WPP boss Mark Read’s self-inflicted shit-storm on the average age of WPP staff — that anyone “over 40 in an agency or marketing function has a target on their back”.

If this is true, and it perhaps won’t be clear until the next IPA industry census, then the loss of experience, wisdom and perspective — valuable but hard to put a price on — is like the industry shooting itself in the foot.

On the other hand, over-40s with some fire in their bellies, could be pushing on open doors if they decide to do their own thing.

Lastly, I’d like to see an end to what I call vocabulary degradation or inflation.

We’ve had Mondelez and its ‘humaning’ abomination, but there are other equally pernicious crimes against normal speech.

Two spring to mind. Everybody ‘strives’ to achieve x or y these days; what’s wrong with ‘try’ or ‘attempt’? And have you ever met an agency or marketer who doesn’t have a ‘deep’ understanding of this or that?

Deep often means they can bore for the UK on the subject. Me, I’m happy with people who just get or know stuff in the normal way without the need to show-off.

On that cheery(ish) note, let’s hasten 2020 out of the door. Things can only get better.

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