Why advertising experience saves clients huge amounts and time and money – whatever it costs

An issue a lot of advertising people confront today is that of monetising experience and expertise. If we have a heart problem and need surgery our instinct is to opt for the best man in the land and pay him whatever he asks for. Not so in the advertising world.

I trot out the following example from time to time when I’m facing a cynical client. A businessman is racing to a very important meeting when his car breaks down. Our man is not a DIY mechanic so within minutes is in a blind panic making frantic calls on his mobile. A van pulls up, the driver offers to help and explains he is a car mechanic.

He opens the bonnet of the dead car, has a poke around and then hits part of the engine with a hammer. The mechanic asks the businessman to hit the starter and the engine bursts into life. Major relief and gratitude all round so the businessman offers some payment. The mechanic proposes £100. The businessman being an accountant by training was expecting a fraction of an hourly rate, about £3 for five minutes, so looks surprised. The mechanic says, “It’s £5 for my time and £95 for 30 years of experience. That’s why I could solve your problem and get you out of trouble.”

In the very early stages of our careers we are all learning all the time and, more than likely, it takes us time to get to a solution. Later on in our careers we should have confronted similar problems many times hence we are quicker to reach a solution. That’s why doctors and lawyers specialise, they become experts in their chosen field; and as a consequence very well rewarded for their knowledge. Hence our mechanic knew which precise spot to hit with his hammer as he had learnt how to solve this particular problem over the years.

My general hypothesis is that, early in their careers, most people aren’t too sure about what they are looking for but over time experienced people do know what they are looking for. This means that the ‘due diligence’ or ‘diagnostic’ period is shorter and the ‘strategy’ or ‘prognosis’ period kicks in a lot faster. The idea end of the process has more time and more thought available as a consequence, and hopefully produces better answers.

The problem though is balancing this experience and expertise with appropriate payment. Time isn’t the currency, the correct currency is knowledge, talent and track record. I was brought in by a client in recent times after one of the big name management consultants had spent a considerable time evaluating their business at a cost of £2m – all based on time costs devoted to the job.

I was told by the client that all of the consultancy’s staff working on the project have never worked in this sector before so much of their time was spent getting up to speed on this and the particular client. So I would guess that £1m was the cost of the team just doing their due diligence. As it turned out, it was alleged that much of the financial data was incorrect, neither was there a proposal on what to do next. So no forward strategy was produced for the business.

Our job was developing such a strategy for this client. We did it in under six months for a tenth of the consultancy’s fees. Their work was shelved for the most part whereas ours was implemented.

Then think about the adworld convention of pitching: the competing agencies have 4-6 weeks to understand the market and the issues confronting the client and then develop solutions – all for free!

Imagine Bill Bernbach pitching to Avis and telling them to leverage their position of second to market leader Hertz. His idea is expressed as “We’re number two so we try harder”. Well blow me down with a feather, how long did it take him to conjour up this pearl of wisdom?

I can imagine a client saying after the meeting, “I could have thought that up” – yes, but you didn’t, moron, and you never would. Decades later Avis was still using the same graphics and almost the same line (it was finally dropped in favour of a new campaign from Leo Burnett last year). Bernbach’s thinking, positioning, line provided Avis with brand equity that is worth gold dust. DDB may have been adequately rewarded by retaining the Avis advertising account for many years – may have been.

A similar story lies behind the origins of Canary Wharf. In the mid-80s London Docklands was a development zone with low to zero confidence on the part of most people that it would ever take off. At the time the area looked like a war zone; there was no infrastructure, flattened land, it was generally pretty grim.

Gold Greenlees Trott was invited to pitch for the advertising account and the night before the pitch they had nothing, just work that was similar to other campaigns for competing development areas. The issue was the Isle of Dogs itself, there was absolutely nothing to commend it. Until, that is, creative director Dave Trott asked Mike Greenlees why this place was different to Milton Keynes or Wales or any other development zone in the UK. Greenlees said, “Well, they are not in London”.

GGT pitched the next morning with a strategy and idea that leveraged the (relative) remoteness of the other UK development zones with the campaign line, ”Why move to the middle of nowhere when you can move to the middle of London?”. They also moved the media money away from vertical property publications to television with the famous ’Crows’ campaign. This kick-started a surge of confidence and interest in the Isle of Dogs – from a wilderness to one of the most important financial centres in the world inside 20 years.

The financial impact on the area as a whole, property developers, inward investment and infrastructure, leading all the way to the 2102 Olympics has been immeasurable and it all started with a very smart idea from a few people at GGT.

In the Docklands example the ‘light bulb moment’ was the night before the pitch but this resulted from experienced people thinking laterally about a very difficult problem. The value created was very significant as it provided the client with a positioning that transformed the perception of the Isle if Dogs from a non-starter to the place to invest in for the future.

The big change since Bill Bernbach’s Avis pitch is that back then an agency would pitch its ideas for the whole account and this could generate revenue for many years to come. Today that’s not the case. Now the creative ad agency is cut out of media, the biggest spend by the client, and, in more and more cases, the actual implementation is ‘de-coupled’ from the idea side of things, leading to further loss of revenue. And quite a few clients seem quite willing to move around much more frequently.

So the ad agency’s calling card is narrowed down to ideas and it seems that most, if not all, ad agencies struggle to price idea generation. It was once the free part of the equation in return for a juicy account. Going from free to expensive is a difficult trick to pull off, even if it is justified. Charging time (which is what most creative agencies do these days) is wholly inappropriate and unrelated to the output.

All I do on a personal level is appropriate the old Stella Artois line – “reassuringly expensive”. It gets a few raised eyebrows but it actually sorts out the men from the boys and saves a lot of wasted time.

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