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19 November 2012 - 12:05pm | posted by | 9 comments

A letter to clients - formerly the most important people in advertising

Dave Birss has a message for clientsDave Birss has a message for clients

Dear clients,

You used to be everything to us. We worshipped you. Whatever you asked us to do, we'd do it without question.

You wanted us to make you look cool and sexy? We did that without hesitation. You wanted us to tell people how great you were? We shouted it loud and clear. You had all of our attention. You were all we cared about.

But you better sit down now.

There's something we need to tell you.

It's over.

You're no longer our number one. We've found someone else. They're called the audience.

Please don't start crying. This is all for your own good.

You see, simply feeding your self-interest isn't doing you any favours any more. It used to be OK for us to just buy some airtime or column-inches and use them to sing your praises. There were limited media-choices in those days and your money was helping to fund much of the content. The audience tolerated it because you were adding value by allowing them to watch the A-team and get The Sun for just 10p.

But that utopian world couldn't last forever.

There's now more content than people could consume in a hundred lifetimes. Most of it for free (either legally or illegally). The handful of communication channels we once had have shattered into a billion pieces. And advertising has gone from being the enabler of a limited amount of content to an unwelcome inconvenience. You've stopped adding value.

And that's why, for your own good, we need to focus our love on the audience.

Because if we don't offer them something that's of value to them, we won't have their attention. And we'll just end up wasting your money shouting a self-interested message to an empty room.

We hope you'll understand.

Yours most sincerely,

The agencies

Dave Birss is the founder of Additive, the inspiration and training company. He’s a former creative director of Poke, OgilvyOne and McCann Worldgroup and hosts the Future of Advertising Podcast where he talks to top people in the industry to find out where they think the future lies. He also mentors at the School of Communication Arts, hires out his mind to agencies, speaks at conferences around the world and recently wrote 'A User Guide to the Creative Mind'


20 Nov 2012 - 10:53's picture

Love it! And completely agree with the sentiment of course.

20 Nov 2012 - 12:37
markp59262's picture

What consumers and brand owners need to realise, is that this will ultimately become a partnership between them. It has to. Price can only go down so far. Distribution can only be so quick. Service can only be so good (though consistency is often more the challenge). And promises will have to be kept by both parties for the super-brands to sustain their positions.

Long live brands. But only those that know what living really means.

Cheers Mark

20 Nov 2012 - 13:33
cmmed15381's picture

I work for a brand, that intentionally doesn't work with agencies for this type of arrogance. Now I know for a fact that client side marketers are not perfect (FAR from it in many cases), but having worked both client and agency side, can tell you for a fact that agencies are more worried about taking the latest technology or buzzword, and force fitting it to a brand and the brand's respective consumer's behaviour.

Typical agency idea of consumer insight: "18 to 24 year olds love mobile, and 90% own iPhones. Let's make an Augmented reality app for iPhones".

Utter b*llocks.

If you look at the progress made by agencies and brands alike in the past 3 years, I'd say, without bias, that client side marketing has taken greater strides.

Agencies use 'consumer insight' and 'user experience' in pitching, but find they rarely actually employ them in ways to develop products and services that are ACTUALLY used by people every day.

If people feel compelled to write 'open letters' like this, at least be satisfactory with the output of not just your own agency, but those you pitch against week in week out too. Because from where I am and your peers all have some work to do.

20 Nov 2012 - 15:43

Thanks @cmmed15381. You are absolutely right. And the kind of agency bandwagoneering behaviour you mention pisses me off too.

In many ways, this letter is a poke at agencies as much as clients. Too many of them are stuck in the mindset you mention and give the rest of the advertising industry a bad name.

Naturally, I had to generalise to get a point across. And I'm delighted to have you contributing to the debate.


20 Nov 2012 - 14:58

Utter rubbish! Most clients can't look past the end of their nose! They think because they ultimately pay the bill that they can turn their hand to being a creative and over ruling their agency. If you want to do that, fine, just hire yourself a freelancer with a Mac and crack on. If you want something new, exciting and inventive that your competitors haven't even thought of, work with your agency. Sure, challenge them from time to time to ensure that their reasoning is sound but use their market knowledge, not just in your market but in others too as many mistakes of the past may be avoided.

With the ever expanding media channels becoming available to the masses, originality and cutting edge design is the catalyst to breaking through the noise and making yourself heard. Coupled with an exciting offering and a strong call to action, you can't really go wrong as long as your media is well placed to the right audience. An agency will deliver this far better and succinctly than any marketing dept. We speak to customers (honestly) without plying them with free gifts to get the answer we want, but to truly understand what they need and don't need. We believe that less is more and that the retention of an existing customer is easier than winning new ones.

So keep your brand fresh, new and exciting by listening to your agency and working with them instead of against them and you will find that they only have the customer at heart and therefore, you at heart.

20 Nov 2012 - 14:54
Larner Caleb's picture

Interesting post, David. Maybe it's the copywriter in me and I'm just having a semantic tussle, but for me, the most important people in advertising are not an 'audience', it's customers, surely. An audience suggests they're fully paid up patrons happy and willing to any message the brand is communicating. As I think you intimate, consumers have the power, there's less need to be loyal and far more scope to create your own totally unique consumer mix.

We should assume there is no audience.

We have to go out and grab customers - old ones, disloyal ones, new ones and plenty that don't even know they're customers yet.

With that scary thought in mind, rather than an audience waiting to hear what you have to say, will we then raise our game and keep working hard enough to keep those customers coming back for more. And with that, then we can start working in partnership with our clients to achieve those returns - and that return on investment.

I'm not sure this exponential rise in consumer 'content' has triggered this shift in the rightful owner of the VIP seat in advertising either; surely the customer has always been the most important person in advertising since we started selling to each other?

I tend to think that if you're working with clients you believe are feeding their own self-interest, you may be working with the wrong clients; there are still plenty out there who nick the shoes of the most important people in the mix and try them on for size now and then.

20 Nov 2012 - 15:56

I hear you @Larner Caleb. But I most definitely meant 'audience'.

The people we need to convince aren't always the customers.

Let's look at sports cars for example. It may be more important to be speaking to the petrol-head community and the design community who will never stick their hands in their pockets for one. However, they're the ones who'll get passionate about the product and talk about it. And their approval of the product will be what convinces the city boy to spend his bonus on it. If you talked directly to the city boy it wouldn't be as effective because any piece of communication you create has an agenda - and is therefore less powerful.

And what about all the ads on TV to kids? Does the child not take the role of a persuader to convince the mum who is, in fact, the paying customer?

I suppose it comes down to the semantic question: do you think our role in the advertising industry is to increase sales or to sell? Because I think these are two quite different motivations.

20 Nov 2012 - 16:41
markp59262's picture

As an addition my earlier comment and the valid observations of ‘cmmed15381'. It would seem that partnership needs to extend to agencies and clients too. Whatever the state of affairs, both currently still need the other in most cases. I too have been both sides of the fence and regularly observe situations when either party stops listening with an open mind and an open heart. We have all been conditioned by the markets and past experiences, I wonder wether its still too early for many to consider really working together to achieve mutually beneficial goals, rather than adopting behaviours to solely maintain each parties respective commercial imperatives, under the guise of a ‘working with...'.

20 Nov 2012 - 18:22
olivi10419's picture

@cmmed15381 we've all seen and heard the false promises and hand wavy notions from agencies telling us how much they care about and understand our customers, and who talk the talk but don't deliver on that promise. But please don't cast us all with the same aspersions. Agreed, there are still far more agencies in the market who act in this way, but some of us don't. Some of us have moved on, and stand by a model that is genuinely valuable and successful for both parties, and actually delivers on our promise of identifying tangible customer insight, so we have the foresight to create great experiences for our clients and the customers.

The key thing here isn't just partnership, as some have mentioned, but really understanding what a mutually valuable partnership involves and both client and agency committing to it. Only then can both parties really establish a 2 way relationship that benefits from the different sets of expertise both client and agency side bring. We both have our strengths and weaknesses, working together in an open agreed partnership is what creates incredibly powerful solutions.

@cmmed15381, plenty of us have worked both agency and client side, and experienced the 'vendor' based relationships you talk about. I took the opposite path from client side to agencies, for exactly that reason you describe, and because I felt it was a chance to do something about it. I'm proud to be part of an agency that doesn't participant in the whole hand wavy nonsense, but does great things, in great relationships with our clients. So bring it on, we'd happily welcome you into the family, to witness what seems to be a fairly unique way of working. Just say the word.


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