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The dear clients...

17 Sep 2019  |  Bob Wootton 
The dear clients...

Bob Hoffman is right to call out agencies for their role in allowing a host of online advertising scandals to flourish - but it's not entirely their fault, writes Bob Wootton. Plus: Virtue signalling and Facebook’s biggest advertiser revealed.

Like many, I always look forward to the latest outpouring from my friend and mentor, Bob Hoffman aka The Ad Contrarian.  He calls it right almost every time and like Dave Trott or Dominic Mills he’s a proper writer with an amazing way with words.

Nor does he hold back, though his writing makes me realise that I do, despite much feedback that readers enjoy the independent stance I take in a world full of corporate interests, lines to take and fear of social media backlash.

Last week’s column is a case in point whose range I’d like to amplify and whose message I’d like to develop.

His thrust is that the legion and burgeoning misadventures (my diplomacy there) of online channels are the result of agencies either being remarkably stupid and not knowing what’s going on or knowing and keeping their mouths shut.  Strong stuff, if not a good look in the popularity stakes.

His argument is rational and therefore difficult to refute, though I would venture another constituency without which things could not have become so bad.  The dear clients.

Sorry if I’m sounding a bit like a broken record here, but the days when a client could reasonably expect its agencies to operate in its best interests at all times are long gone.

Indeed, it was the clients who first broke that convention by shaving remuneration until the agencies had to make paymasters of their media owner suppliers.  Agencies played along and online greatly accelerated the trend.

The relationship between client and agency became extremely commercial, requiring a different mindset from said clients.  Witness the dreaded “what have we done this week/month that’s not in scope which we now have to argue about fees for?” conversation.

In this new world it’s strictly caveat emptor, and in the Ad Contrarian’s logic the emptors are implicitly shown to be quite negligent.

This could be because of marketing’s continued failure to be taken seriously by many of its host employers; or the diminished competence which accompanies downsizing, declining experience and remuneration; or because of the delegation of specialised comms issues to specialists in contracts and negotiations, aka procurement.  Or indeed a mix of all.  But it’s a fuck up.

Nor, regrettably, is the recently-trumpeted joint IPA/ISBA guide to Finding An Agency likely to improve things.  Yes, it’s mostly good bread and butter stuff with several timely reminders of poor practices to avoid, but veterans of such discussions with trained eyes have already noticed it looks more agency-centric than previous iterations.  IPA has certainly tucked one into the back of the net on page ten and in many ways the document’s drift actually feeds back into the above.

Virtue signalling continued

The industry’s predicament vis-a-vis the challenge of climate change rolls on.  As I’ve offered before, it has the industry in some knots.  Perhaps you enjoyed this refreshingly level piece as much as I did.

Now 32 agencies have signed up to support September 20th’s Global Climate Strike.  Almost all are independent.  No holding companies and only a couple of network agency outposts to date.

Signature empowers employees both to participate in the strike and to engage in relevant creation and messaging.

As expected, advertisers are so far keeping some distance, partly because they’re not given to move quickly or rashly and not least because the issue usually sits elsewhere in their corporate structures.  Are they indulging their agency partners from afar?  Are many even aware?

But what interests me as much is a difference between climate change and diversity / inclusivity.

Both bandwagons offer considerable opportunity for virtue-signalling and self-advancement.  In many fields of business, the ambitious - whether talented or not - have rightly identified inclusivity as a shortcut to profile, a promotion and even a gong or two.

Awards for services to advertising/publishing/broadcasting are now often for services to diversity first and industry second.

Diversity is something on which people can set, measure and report to clear targets.  And quite quickly and publicly too.

Whereas climate change is quite amorphous.

Controversy still rages around the science [there's no 'controversy' - Ed.], though in an echo of John Grisham’s breakthrough novel, The Pelican Brief, much of the denial seems to emanate from corporate interests or from politicians or scientists bankrolled by them.

And while some argue that everybody should now be doing their utmost, as fast as the first world might clean up its act the likes of China and Brazil are further dirtying it faster, making a road towards eco-capitalism treacherous.

Two critical constituencies that fascinate me most are frequent flyers (not guilty) and luxury fossil-fuelled car drivers (guilty as charged), both well-represented across our industry and its social set.

Many hold forth with high principles but quietly continue previous behaviours.  Engaged in conversation, some pretty elaborate and self-serving hand-wringing emerges - paying to offset; kicking the blame upstairs; displacing onto globalisation and the need for unintermediated human interaction; going electric when pricing/range/battery renewal are resolved; even frequent flyer rewards.

My hunch is that climate change is not going to offer the same opportunities for personal advancement as inclusivity has.  But what do I know, eh?  I’m (well) over thirty ffs.

(nb - I am not taking issue with the rightness of either campaign, just calling out the way issues like these are often subverted by the ambitious for personal advantage).

Facebook’s biggest advertiser revealed

Talking of which, I’m on Facebook most days, though by no means hourly.  Yet I’d never heard of their biggest UK advertiser, powdered-nutrition provider Huel founded in 2014.

This means I’d never seen their advertising - despite their outspending Microsoft, EE, Tesco, P&G, Nestle et al - or at the very least that it was so shit I subconsciously blocked it.

This is grist to the mill for us flat-earthers who argue that advertising is seldom what it used to be and that online is not a branding channel.  Long may that debate continue.

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