Adland as victim; and the 'engineering' position

26 Nov 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
Adland as victim; and the 'engineering' position

There are times when the industry gives the impression it is ashamed of what it does, writes Dominic Mills - but it should lift its head and look at the bigger picture. Plus: how Artefact is embracing geekiness with pride, and something fun on the Wunderman/JWT merger...

Victim-hood is all the rage these days, whether it’s individuals or whole cohorts finding every opportunity to turn a slight – perceived or actual – or a robust debate into an opportunity to wallow in self-pity.

And guess what? Now it’s advertising’s turn. Last week Ipsos Mori produced its annual Veracity Index, a shoddy and headline-chasing piece of work (of which more in a minute) in which advertising executives were revealed to be Britain’s least trusted profession. Yes, that’s lower even than bankers, politicians, estate agents and my own trade. Oh, yeah...and pollsters too.

There’s no need to dwell on it, but there is one tiny piece of good news in there: advertising is classed as a ‘profession’ just like lawyers and doctors, even though you don’t need any ‘professional’ qualifications to join or, indeed, succeed. Well, hooray. I’ve met many an ad exec who wanted the status accorded to a profession. Me, I’ve always considered it a trade – and nothing wrong with that.

Cue a bout of hand-wringing from the industry. Like masochists and the modern-day cult of victim-hood, no chance to wallow in self-pity is missed.

There’s one notable exception: Matt Goff, joint chief executive of A&E/DDB, who said: “While we might not be comfortable propping up the table, I don’t think coming last here is a cause for too much concern. Telling the truth is not necessarily a key yardstick of what we do. It’s not really what people expect from advertising.”

Way to go, Matt. That’s what I call a confident, head-held-high response, although I think I would refer him to the McCann-Erickson motto about advertising: ‘truth well told’.

And that is how advertising needs to conduct itself, all the more so when the pressures are swirling all around as never before.

The AA does sterling work making the case for advertising, although I understand that that is too often forgotten in the mess of day-to-day life.

There are times when the industry gives the impression it is ashamed of what it does. But it should lift its head and look at the bigger picture: advertising creates wealth, it creates jobs and it funds the media (good actors and bad) that a) we all rely on and b) underpins democracy. And sometimes it gives us entertainment, fun and a degree of social cohesion. Not too shabby.

Now for the survey itself. I won’t question its methodology (1,001 adults 15+, representative sample and all that), but I will question some of its premises.

Let’s start with the obvious: what is an ‘advertising executive’? These days I find it harder to define myself, so how the great British public is supposed to know is beyond me. ‘Advertising exec’ covers everything from a creative to a media buyer to an airtime salesperson to a social media content creator to an influencer and many jobs in between.
Does it include advertising’s paymasters, client-side CMOs and marketing execs? After all, whoever pays the piper calls the tune.

Like all professions/trades, some individuals and organisations are more trustworthy than others. The best description I ever had of advertising people was this: ‘They’re like everybody else, only more so.’

Indeed, the same vagueness in premise is prevalent throughout the study. Does banker mean hedgie, fx trader, venture capitalist, someone in a call centre, or the manager of my local Barclays branch? What about people who flog pensions?
And if we’re talking of professions in the spotlight, why didn’t Ipsos include, to take a few random examples, mobile phone execs, airline execs, retailers, utilities or gig economy platforms? None of them have exactly covered themselves in glory recently.

So my advice to the industry is, faced with surveys like this, don’t whinge or go all introspective. Ignore them.

The ‘engineering’ position

One of the things I love about the advertising industry is the way it both evolves and reinvents itself, never more so than now as the landscape in which ‘advertising’ (see above) changes and expands.

Thus all sorts of entities come to play in the space. They all bring something different (well, more often than not) but the big issue for each newcomer is how they position themselves.

Take one of the newbies, Artefact, which launched in the UK last month under the guidance of former Zenith and Mediacom US big cheese Tom Cijffers, a Franco/Anglo outfit with its UK roots in the former 4Ps Marketing entity.

Let me try and describe where it sits in a brutally simple way: it seeks to combine consultancy with in-house data tech and analysis and activation across digital channels. And all in one P&L. Hmm, possibly confusing since that could take it into competition with Accenture Interactive, Accenture Digital, Deloitte Digital, Sapient, not to mention pure performance agencies.

Artefact (which is itself a word rooted with meaning – combining art and manufacturing based on scientific observation) has thus chosen to position itself as the ‘Marketing Engineers’.

Does this work? It certainly beats ‘Maths Men’, now a cliché, and is more nuanced than talk of art and science.

It is thus at least different, and conveys something of the offer. I’m told that adopting the term was the subject of much internal debate. Artefact says it’s happy to wear its geekiness with pride, but is it too geeky? And does it appeal more to the client CIO, or the client CMO? Or does it fall between the stools? That depends on who the likely buyer of its services is.

It seems to be working anyway, with clients like Nissan, Samsung, Selfridges and Habitat.

The good news is that, by pure fluke, engineers came fourth in Ipsos’ trusted professions study – assuming you put any credence in that.

The less-good news is that, if you search ‘Marketing Engineers’, Artefact not only doesn’t feature on page one, but it’s not the only game in town.

Assuming it is serious about its positioning, and wants to be taken seriously, it could do with fixing that.

My small contribution to the Wunderman/JWT merger

Sadly, it's too late for me to offer much in the way of a cogent thought on the merger of Wunderman and JWT...apart from one and a story that may be apocryphal.

The thought: as with VML/Y&R, the ordering of the name of the merged entity, Wunderman Thompson, tells you everything you need to know about a) the distribution of power in adland (and maybe Mark Read's view of it).

The story is too good not to tell. Founder Lester Wunderman (aged 98 and still going according to Wikipedia) drives to Wunderman's London office. The car park Nazis tell him there are no spaces.

"But I'm Wunderman," he protests.

"I don't care if you're chuffin' Superman," says the attendant. "You can't park here."

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