Mike Follett – Grow up!

Mike Follett, Managing Director, Lumen Research

It is my fervent desire that the advertising industry grows up by 2020.

In a perfect world, advertising agencies should be responsible business partners to the clients, able to address their real business problems in ways that create real value. They would know the value they create, but also know their limitations. They would have the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference. In short, they would be grown ups.

Because God knows we’re not now. Is there an industry more self-regarding, more self-deluded, more infantile than modern advertising? One that is more obsessed with superficial glitz or faddish thinking? One more addled by the idea that everyone wins a prize?

It is no wonder that our clients no longer come to us for really big thinking. A truly creative business owner has no interlocutor when they step into most ad agencies. We show them fluff, and are surprised when they think that we are fluffy. We have become the pretty picture people.

Cary Grant for Mike Follett's Perspective

Cary Grant in North by Northwest. The ad man’s ad man. Don who? 

This is a far cry from the role and responsibility – and respect – of the ‘advertising agent’ of yore. Cary Grant wasn’t making it up when he portrayed Roger Thornhill as businessman in North by Northwest. The great advertising agencies took business seriously, and saw their role as applying their creative thinking to answering business problems. And they got paid for it.

How can we regain this lost world of innocence? Or rather, how can we escape the playpen that we have boxed ourselves into, and return to the smoky world of the grown ups, with its more adult pleasures?

The first thing we should do is to put away childish things. We have to end our obsession with ‘art for art’s sake’ and apply (and applaud) creativity that answers business problems. At the most superficial level, this means that the distinction between ‘creative’ and ‘effectiveness’ awards should be abandoned.

But it really requires a deeper change in mindset. We have to ‘go back to the numbers’. Over the years, ad agencies have become less and less numerate, and more and more ‘narrative’ driven[1]. We can see the success of this approach in the gradual erosion of our profit margins.

Yet numbers are where the money is. One of the companies I work with, Bunnyfoot Research, based in Oxford, England, provides the sort of insight that shows the true value of advertising. They combine state-of-the-art eye-tracking research techniques with detailed sales analysis to show conclusively how changes in copy lead to changes in sales. The findings help agencies help their clients make more money, this fiscal. These are the sorts of facts that can gain the attention and respect of clients. This is what grown ups talk about.

The second thing we need to do is to start standing on the shoulders of giants (or, failing that, those of Les Binet). Advertising, as an industry, has forgotten more things than we are ever likely to discover before 2020. We need to start remembering, and applying, and building upon what we’ve already learned rather than perpetually reinventing the wheel.

I don’t know what caused our current collective amnesia. Perhaps it was the rise of the commercial Web, and its sense that ‘this time, it’s different’. Perhaps it was because adding to a body of knowledge isn’t as glamorous as ripping up a rulebook. Perhaps it was because agencies started employing arts graduates instead of social scientists. Either way, we have witnessed the sort of intellectual suicide that would put Pascal to shame. The collective effort that went into showing, say, the long-term value of consistent brand equity, or the role of emotions in creating effective communications has been largely forgotten. From time to time, someone will unearth one of these forgotten facts, like a medieval monk discovering classical a manuscript tucked away in the corner of the scriptorum. But such individual efforts will not create a new Renaissance. You need a change in mentalité

Finally, if you want advertising to be more grown up, then it would be good to employ some grown ups. (I say this as a man who has attained the grand old age of 34). Have you seen the age profile of the average ad agency? It’s like Logan’s Run out there. People who know their stuff and have seen it all before are thin on the ground.

Jenny Agutter for Mike Follett's perspective

Jenny Agutter in Logan’s Run. My God, it does look like she works in a modern ad agency.

But more than the actual age of the staff employed, hiring people who have grown up skills and attitudes are important as well. Agencies are full of people who are in touch with their inner child.We don’t need any more of them. But statisticians, business analysts, people who speak in math: those are the people who would genuinely expand the skills set of the average agency. We don’t employ them not because they wouldn’t make money, but because they wouldn’t fit in. But perhaps it’s us that need to fit in with them.

So, there you have it. Advertising needs to grow up, and to do so, needs to embrace the language of business, build on what it already know and hire or retain the people who already know it. It is a cultural change rather than a quick fix, but doing things properly is a sign of maturity.


[1] It should be noted, of course, that when good ideas are rejected, they are not replaced by no ideas, but instead by bad ideas. Where once we spoke of business, now we waffle on about ‘Jungian’ archetypes or poor précises of Transactional Analysis. Does anyone, honestly, take this stuff seriously?