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Advertising Vs. The John Wayne Syndrome

by David Anderson

Let’s go deep into a subject that is widely observed and rarely discussed.

It’s not that we’re so brave; we’re just successful enough to have a little leeway.  Besides, it needs saying and we might as well be the ones to say it.

The greatest obstacle to effective, conspicuous, breakthrough advertising is sometimes the ad department.  Wherever there is a significant staff answering for advertising within a company, there are people with a powerful incentive to say, “Boss, we’ve got that covered fine already.”

Like others in our industry, no doubt, we were long aware of this but didn’t have a handle with which to describe it.  Then, while working on strategy for an aviation client, selling a vital, literally vital service to corporate flight departments, we saw the echo of our predicament.  How could a corporate flight department admit that they didn’t already have Safety covered as thoroughly as possible?  For convenience in discussing a strategy to address this issue, we started calling it “The John Wayne Syndrome.”

The nasty little secret is that sometimes an ad department has a hard time admitting they need an ad agency.  Two things precipitated this, and they both date from about 1987.

How the syndrome took shape.

During the mid-80’s prominent advertising agencies broke the basic social compact of the ad industry.  They made it too obvious that they were out for themselves.  Selling out to acquisitive conglomerates, they demonstrated all too publicly that their first priority was not, in fact, their clients.  Cashing in for big initial paydays and superb five-year earn-outs, the principals of prominent agencies lost their welcome in the executive suite of client organizations.  Once the trusted advisors of chief executives, America’s advertising agencies became suppliers to middle management, and quickly this began to include even the legendary agency brands.

Then, when the stock market tumbled in the fall of 1987, successful client organizations got leaner and meaner, as well they should.  But instead of increasing their outsourcing, many client-side marketing and ad departments protected their headcount.  In some cases this even included taking creative assignments in-house.

Those of us managing large client relationships in that era began to notice that our clients often acted as if they were in competition with us.  What had started as a questionable layering of insulation between professional communication advice and top management became an armed camp defending against any idea that was not made here.  At one American automotive company, the process of taking an advertising campaign up through the layers of naysayers to the famous CEO became known among us at the agency as “the dance of death.”

With the coming of in-house Mac operators a few years later, brand consistency practically dissolved in some campaigns.

Oh, the humanity.

There is nothing wrong or surprising about the motives.  They come from the same human character that is at the core of every success.  Client marketing personnel have passion to do a good job; loyalty to the boss and the organization; admiration for colleagues; desire to grow, learn more and advance. Often they have superb credentials and experience.

Unfortunately a rivalry between client and agency usually is based on a confusion of roles.  Client-side ad managers are providing tremendous value to their companies.  There’s plenty to do that they are in a better position to do than the advertising agency.  It appears that some do not appreciate their own role as much as we do, though.  And that’s where the rivalry originates.

Lead, follow or get out of the way.

Advertising agencies have to learn to “lead from the middle.”  Since we agency people live pretty much without structural power or authority, all we have left is influence.  And only the quality of our ideas can give us that influence.

Clients have to learn that it is good for them individually, as well as for their companies, when their agency succeeds.  It is very easy to make your agency wrong.  The outcome of any serous contest in this regard is so certain that the game is not worth playing.  The client is already the winner.  But we suggest that there is a much bigger contest, in the marketplace, and that this is the one worth winning.

Why do we need an agency anyway?

An independent point of view remains the single best thing that an advertising agency brings to its clients.  It still looks like magic when the same facts the client has been viewing with frustration form the raw material for a breakthrough, when they are viewed through the lens of a professional outsider.  Many of us have worked for as long as nine years on a particular campaign, learning the product and industry inside out, without losing this “Man From Mars” point of view.  It is bred into real advertising agency people.

“Creativity” is debatable, unfortunately.  Even the best creative work can be neutralized by analysis.  The part of the brain where desire is born actually switches off when we analyze, particularly under pressure.  Most creative work is evaluated for approval by people who have their arms crossed, physically or mentally.  So while we consider ourselves abundantly creative, experience has led us back to the idea that creative means effective.

On those rare occasions when we are pinned down to saying what we think our creative talent consists of, we say, “spontaneous interpretive or integrative ability.”  We can look at a bunch of factors and make a sharp point out of them, usually.

And you’re telling me this because . . .?

Why would we go on such an extended rant, appearing to indict the very people who could hire us?  The clients we know are big enough people to hear this and use it to their benefit. The Prospects we seek are too.