Art & Commerce

Presumed Innocent
By Alison Fahey, Editor
Why are agencies so surprised by a client’s caprice?
It always amazes me when agencies are shocked to discover that a client hasn’t been totally upfront with them.
Like most newsmagazines, we’ve had to share unwelcome news with agencies over the years. On most of those occasions, the bad news is that one of their clients is unfaithful, snooping around town for ideas, or worse, has already decided to yank their prized account.
So when the agency’s senior management has been assured by the client that all is well, the recipients of our bad tidings almost always have the same reaction.
They rant and rave about irresponsible journalism and vengeful sources. Then comes the litany of reasons why that information cannot be remotely accurate. Sometimes, we are regaled with details of the last client/agency dinner, which sounds more like a lovefest than a business meeting.
Fair enough. Not all news tips pan out, and many die for lack of additional evidence or confirmation. Still, it’s not unusual for an agency to discover a short time later that the bad news is true and the marriage is coming to an abrupt end.
Now, I’m not boasting that we hear bad news before you. It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue in light of Miller. And I’m trying to understand why such smart, intuitive people can sometimes be so naive.
On Tuesday, I spoke to folks at both Miller roster shops before they got official word they were being sacked. One was completely dumfounded, making the typical nasty threats before hanging up on me. The other also doubted the information, adding how solid the relationship had been lately. But he ended the conversation on a more realistic note with a half-hearted, “Hey, you never know.” Still, he offered me a bet, and I accepted.
Both agencies had ample warnings. First, whenever new senior management is installed at a client, we put that account on a “watch list.” We began doing this after finding that 8 out of
10 times, when a new marketing director or president comes in, the account moves within a year.
Many critics will say Fallon had even more signs. There was the “Dick,” debacle and a continuing sales slump. You all know the story by now.
Perhaps these two agencies weren’t completely blindsided, although they certainly seemed surprised. So I asked competing agency CEOs if such an attitude is naive.
“Listen, you can’t walk around thinking all your clients are bullshitting you,” said one. “Unless there’s an obvious sign, I’d rather give them the benefit of the doubt–and then be a
little surprised. So what? It’s better than thinking the worst all the time. You’d be paralyzed by fear.”
Said another: “It all depends on the relationship I trust some clients to be upfront more than others.” OK, that makes sense. But what about adopting an attitude of healthy skepticism, which falls somewhere between complete trust and cynicism? Don’t expect the worst, but don’t buy everything you’re told on face value, either.
The only sure thing I’ve learned in covering this business for more than a decade is that anything can happen. Plus, clients don’t always tell the truth when it comes to the status of their accounts. Why haven’t agencies caught on to that?
Cannes and Beyond
By Keith Reinhard
Good isn’t good enough, says Keith Reinhard.
It’s time for creativity to break loose
More than a month has passed since the 46th International Advertising Festival in Cannes. By all measures, it was a success. We celebrated a lot of good creative work. For me, the best part was working with 42 jurors from 28 countries who sorted through 12,000 entries to select a group of winners we were proud to present.
Jurors this year seemed less motivated by patriotism and more interested in good ideas. It is also true that the film jurors in particular worried about the amount of violence present in this year’s crop and felt a special responsibility to set higher standards for creatives around the world. That’s why they opted to award the Grand Prix to an entry they felt was more substantial and would better stand the test of time than the more outrageous campaign many had expected to win. The jurors thought, and I agreed, that the film selected for the Grand Prix would send a better signal for creative people around the world who look to the festival in Cannes to define creative excellence.
Yet something bothers me: We saw good work in Cannes, but nothing truly amazing. Certainly, nothing that dramatically advanced the art of persuasion. For all the excellent examples of concept and craft, one had the vague sense we were circling back over well-trodden ground, judging who could come up with the most clever arrangement of words and pictures while adhering to tried-and-true formulas within familiar forms.
The world has changed greatly in the 46 years since the festival began, and advertising creativity needs to find new forms. Interestingly, the excitement in the press and poster jury room was often caused by entries that were neither press nor poster: actual cartons of eggs placed on airport luggage conveyors for Virgin Atlantic and signs segregating “white” and “colored,” placed in phone kiosks to remind users that times have changed. Smirnoff Red Vodka won a gold Lion for images painted on actual buses–London’s familiar red double-deckers. And a Canadian amusement park won a silver Lion for a series of billboards draped with the bodies of riders “flung” from the park’s wildest ride.
By adding the cyber Lions last year and the media Lions this year, the festival has taken steps in the right direction. Many of the cyber and media winners had a freshness lacking in the “been there, done that” press and TV work. Granted, we need to keep breaking patterns within traditional forms, but we must also explode the definition of creativity beyond the boundaries of the printed page and TV screen. With the digital age upon us, are we pointing future generations in the right direction by continuing to place the weight of emphasis on the forms of the past?
Bill Bernbach said one of his history professors used to say the freest thing in the world is a train. It can go as fast as it wants, but it’s always going in the right direction. Bill used this story to emphasize the responsibility we have to put down the right tracks for our people. The craft of making ads will always be important. But Cannes should keep looking for better ways to reward creativity that breaks free from self-imposed boundaries.
Instead of circling the past, we should be laying new tracks that point creative people to the future.
Keith Reinhard is chairman and chief executive officer of DDB Worldwide. He served as jury president for the film and press and poster competitions in Cannes this year.