Less heat and more light please: ad agencies, Brexit and understanding consumers

By Jes Conway

“Less Heat and More Light, Please…”: On Ad Agencies, Brexit and Understanding Consumers

Did I miss the bulletin where MAA was taken over by The Daily Mail?

I only ask because Archie Heaton’s intemperate invective on agency shortcomings (“Adland’s Search for Equality Misses the Target in Brexit Britain”, December 20, 2019) falls well short of the incisive commentary regular MAA readers have come to know and love.

I agree wholeheartedly that “the industry’s job is to understand the average person in this country, to translate their mood for clients and to communicate with them”.

The operative word here is “translate”. There’s an industry discipline dedicated to just such interrogation and interpretation. It used to be called account planning, and it’s been around for around 50 years (full disclosure: yes, it is what I do for a living).

Account planners strive not to let private prejudice or personal taste interfere with their job. If we were the target audience our discipline would not exist. That’s why account planners are schooled through long and occasionally bitter experience to interpret consumer feedback rather than merely transcribe it. Planners know that people don’t always say what they mean and don’t always mean what they say. People often say one thing and do another, as opinion pollsters have discovered to their cost on more than one occasion.

Judging by his own analysis Archie doesn’t quite seem to have got the hang of this. Apparently a mere 23 per cent of the UK population identify as “left leaning” in contrast to a whopping 44 per cent of ad agency staff. Not sure precisely what “left leaning” means here but let’s assume (as Archie apparently does) that it’s synonymous with voting Remain. Unfortunately that left-leaning 23 per cent ‘minority’ is hard to square with YouGov reporting that 53 per cent of votes cast at the UK’s 2019 election favoured ‘Remain’ parties – Labour, Lib Dem, Green, SNP – who accounted for 1.7 million more voters than ‘Leave’ parties (Conservative, Brexit, DUP).

Furthermore YouGov analysis also indicates a substantial majority of 18-49 year old voters voted for Remain parties. So what Archie perceives as a huge skew to Remain among agency staff is simply a reflection of the national average voting pattern for their age group. Indeed it is not until their early to mid fifties that 2019 election voters nationally are more likely to vote Leave than Remain. Studies also indicate that Leave voters are disproportionately likely to have finished education at 16. So age and low educational attainment predict Leave sympathies better than working class status alone. That’s why YouGov tells us that among C2DE voters Leave party votes only exceeded Remain party votes by a slender 51 per cent to 49 per cent margin in December 2019.

Of course Archie’s right that it’s neither helpful nor professional to stereotype any group of voters or consumers as stupid. But it’s a bit rich to claim there’s some sort of conspiracy among ad agency staff to neglect this particular audience. Perhaps this omission has more to do with the ugly fact that that most client marketing directors resist spending their advertising budget to target poorly educated 60-somethings, whom they inexplicably regard as insufficiently lucrative or aspirational.

More significantly, brands and markets exist because of common needs and values that very different people share. Andy Warhol observed that presidents and film stars drink the same Coca-Cola as the guy on the street corner. In this regard at least Archie’s warning about over-segmentation and micro targeting makes a solid point – though in reality this is much more characteristic of social media than TV or outdoor.

In view of this common humanity it should go without saying that good planners cultivate the ability to relate to people whose backgrounds and opinions differ markedly from their own. So it’s unfortunate that Archie further disfigures his argument with a scattershot litany of insults directed at liberals and hipsters. Such ranting manifests the very same lack of empathy he criticises so freely in others. What happened to “be the change you want to see in the world”?

Turning to the vexed question of campaign content, daytime TV viewers might be surprised to hear they’re being subjected to “a slew of campaigns… [around] sexuality and gender identity”. That’s because I suspect such campaigns’ share of mind within the industry is far, far higher than their share of media voice outside what Archie rather rudely calls “the M25 bubble”.

In fact where messaging is concerned, Archie’s “deeper trends” of local pride and cultural identity have been selling points for over half a century (remember “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish To Love Levy’s” – below). In this context, Archie’s choice of Carling’s TV campaign as a role model for responsive brand localism may be more significant than he realises. It’s no coincidence that Carling is a domestic commodity lager which enjoys volume sales well below its late 1980s heyday. Now whether you choose to regard this type of ad strategy as celebrating localism or pandering to insularity will depend on a combination of your own outlook and the finesse of the execution itself.

Either way I’d suggest that commercial imperatives of scale and globalisation, which will continue to prevail regardless of Brexit, are apt to make this type of communication approach a pretty niche strategy that generally won’t travel well.

Part of the genius of DDB’s work for Levy’s (“real Jewish rye” lest we forget) was that it unashamedly celebrated the brand’s ethnic origins while simultaneously reaching out to Americans of every age, class, creed and colour. In other words DDB sought to make Levy’s Rye Bread rather more like Coca-Cola – and rather less like Carling. If it isn’t too “woke” a suggestion, perhaps Archie might profit by Bill Bernbach’s example?

And as for “waking up and smelling the coffee”, I’d suggest Archie sticks to something decaff before taking to his keyboard to accuse the rest of us of lacking understanding or insight. I don’t doubt the honesty of Archie’s personal beliefs, but I seriously question the utility of his professional analysis. What do they teach people at Wolff Olins nowadays?

Meanwhile, I do hope Archie’s ideas aren’t representative of the general quality of thinking in brand consultancies. Because if they are, then it’s no wonder that so many clients have become slightly reluctant to pay for proper account planners in their creative agencies.

Now might be a good time for those clients to rethink that policy – so that we might all generate a little less heat and a lot more light in an alarmingly polarised world.

Jes describes himself as a “resting ad agency planning director.” He’s worked at Lowe Howard-Spink, Ogilvy, JWT, Walsh Trott Chick Smith and Euro RSCG. He notes that, of these, Ogilvy is the only agency brand still with us (not his fault, obviously.)

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4 comments

  1. Avatar

    An elegant rebuttal of Archie Heaton’s article, based on actual evidence. Not surprised by the planning pedigree in the author’s bio. I’m also unconvinced by Heaton’s thesis — that agencies can’t empathise with their audiences or create involving campaigns because they’re not fully represented in the agency workforce. How he account for the fact that decades ago agencies were far more ‘officer class’ than today (JWT would be a classic example), yet they churned out a stream of populist and popular advertising which found its place in culture. Maybe he should be looking at other — less politicised — explanations for the decline in advertising’s popularity.

  2. Avatar

    My article was an attempt to expose the marketing industry’s misunderstanding of the average person in this country and, helpfully, Jes Conway validates this point for me in the first line of his response. While I am genuinely grateful he took the time to reply, the above simply demonstrates the mindset I was criticising and underlines my point. In fact, he validates my argument in the first line, with a tired jibe at The Mail that, while a pantomime villain to London’s liberal elite, is the UK’s most-read news brand trusted by 31 million people a month. Thus, if Conway was as unbiased as he claims, these facts alone would point to the opening line being a compliment rather than a condescension. I don’t read the Mail and I’m no Tory, but I don’t want to keep looking the other way and am striving to be truly non-partisan in my work. I hope Jes and others join me.

  3. Avatar

    My article was an attempt to expose the marketing industry’s misunderstanding of the average person in this country and, helpfully, Jes Conway validates this point for me. While I am genuinely grateful he took the time to reply, the above simply demonstrates the mindset I was criticising and underlines my point. In fact, he validates my argument in the first line, with a tired jibe at The Mail that, while a pantomime villain to London’s liberal elite, is the UK’s most-read news brand trusted by 31 million people a month. Thus, if Conway was as unbiased as he claims, these facts alone would point to the opening line being a compliment rather than a condescension. I don’t read the Mail and I’m no Tory, but I don’t want to keep looking the other way and am striving to be truly non-partisan in my work. I hope Jes and others join me.

  4. Avatar

    That’s a shrewd point very well made, Adrian.

    What’s also true is that popular (and populist) advertising can come from the NCO as readily as the “officer class”.

    For instance, Dave Trott’s distinctive brand of punchy, street-smart vernacular spoke to the common man in an infectious, engaging and memorable way.

    Yet the few critics who stereotyped Barking-born Dave and the agencies he led as mere proponents of “White Van Man” copy overlooked his ability to communicate with equal flair and succinctness to professional audiences. Remember “Designed Well, Built Well, Honeywell”? Or “Why Move to the Middle of Nowhere When You Can Move to the Middle of London?” (London Docklands Development Corporation). And when the brief demanded aspiration and wit, Dave delivered that too with a droll Louis Jordan pastiche for Access (“the restaurant bill caused frustration/ I couldn’t pay for my crustacean/ Does you do or does you don’t take Access?”).

    Moving from the past to the present – does anyone who takes the time to view current show reels from (say) Adam & Eve, AMV/ BBDO and Leo Burnett honestly believe the work illustrates a lack of ability to understand the average person? It’s not as if all those ads went onscreen without extensive consumer research first, is it? And (as Adrian’s comment suggests) who on earth imagines that further politicising the culture and climate producing this work is going to benefit agency fortunes, brand sales, or client profits?

    I make no comment on Archie’s reply, other than to observe that MAA readers must draw their own conclusions as to which of us has properly understood the other’s position – and consequently which of us bears the greater responsibility for any tired jibes or partisan opinions, whether perceived or real. Anyone who’s worked in an agency knows first hand how tough it is to write, sell, and make good work. I should imagine most agency staff have quite enough on their plates without culture wars adding to the confusion.