'What do you do, exactly?' The marketing industry's identity crisis

Paul Kitcatt is a consultant chief creative officer and was co-founder of the agency Kitcatt Nohr, where he spent 14 years.

The first day of my life as a copywriter, someone gave me ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ to read. I learnt several things from it. One was that Ogilvy’s agency had the strapline, ‘We sell or else.’

I thought that was pretty much what we all did. I didn’t get from Ogilvy’s book an explanation of the difference between selling and marketing. I learnt that later from a Dilbert cartoon: ‘Marketing is selling done by graduates.’

I know it’s a bit more complicated, but I came into this industry from teaching, and honestly, nobody on the outside gives a fig about the distinctions we can discern between one branch of our industry and another. My former colleagues all knew I’d gone off to the grubby world of commerce, and as far as they were concerned I might as well have joined the crew of a pirate ship.

I had a look recently at what various agencies now claim to do. Ogilvy still says ‘We sell or else,’ though they go on to say, ‘everything we do is designed to change behaviour’.

I understand this. We had a similar statement at my agency. Direct marketing, if we’re allowed to speak of it, or CRM, or eCRM certainly does more than just sell stuff. But in the end, when the person who’s spending the money (the client) wants to know if they’re getting value, they start talking about return on investment. Which means, ‘How much money did I make from what I spent?’ And that, mostly, means you (the agency) have to show you sold something. You just did it in a subtler way, via what we amuse ourselves by calling a relationship.

When I looked at a few other agency sites, things became murkier. I read about communications that really resonate, leveraging brands one to one, giving brands meaning as people make their choice, harnessing individuality to drive brand value, creating ideas that are humanly relevant, and projecting a consistent and engaging voice with ideas that travel.

It would be easy to mock these complicated, euphemistic statements. What on earth are they talking about? What do they do, exactly? But I’ve spent long enough in this business to know how hard it is to make a statement that’s clear and distinctive about your own agency. All the labels are hostages to fortune, and what people understand from them changes over time. New ones arrive, and everyone knows they have to be digital and social, or else, as Ogilvy might have said.

But in the attempt not to say the wrong thing, most of these agencies end up saying nothing. Or something that calls for a lengthy explanation, and who’s got the time? It looks like the industry doesn’t actually know what it’s doing. It’s having an identity crisis.

It’s not surprising. When I read Ogilvy’s book, the landscape he described was not very different from the one I inhabited in 1989. Ads from 25 years earlier looked slightly quaint, but were recognizably the same kind of things as we wanted to do, and they appeared in newspapers, on TV, and as 48 sheets, or in the mail. You’d have been proud to do something as good, in many cases.

Now look. All those media remain, but how we use them has been transformed. I mean both as consumers and creators of advertising in all its forms. And new media have arrived, and then there’s phones. Who would have guessed?

On top of which, the biggest brands in our world didn’t even exist then, and in some cases, their founders were infants.

Maybe it’s their fault, because in the case of several of these mega-brands, it’s not immediately obvious what they sell, because they don’t talk like that. The answer is they’re selling you, the user, of course.

Faced with such radical, rapid change, it just doesn’t sound enough to talk about selling things. If you’re Persil, you can’t tweet ‘Persil washes whiter’ every seven hours. And it won’t fill a website, it won’t wash on Facebook (sorry), and you’re probably not even allowed to say it anyway. You’re going to have to work a lot harder, with an agency who can think up enough to fill 58 pages of a website, for example. Which is how many Persil have, and I salute them.

I don’t know who did this site, but Persil’s ad agency is Mullen Lowe, and they say, ‘We are a creatively driven integrated marketing communications group with a strong entrepreneurial heritage and challenger mentality. We use creativity to get our clients’ brands an unfair share of attention.’

Reading 58 pages about washing is definitely an unfair share of anyone’s attention.

It’s not obvious how it sells washing powder, though it is probably presumed to increase loyalty. Because without all those pages, you might wander off to read the 124 pages on the Ariel site instead.

This is marketing as service, or service as marketing, or perhaps both. They’re indistinguishable, and it’s good. You can find out how to remove stubborn stains from either site, and from any other soap site too. On the Daz site you can take a quiz to see what new hobby might suit you, too. I may have spent too long researching this, I now realise.

It’s all a long way from ‘We sell or else’. The marketing arms race plus the confusion and panic caused by the digital revolution has pushed the entire industry into an existential crisis. Does any of what we do have meaning, purpose or value?

You can make it sound like it does if you say something about experience, individuality, brand narrative, relationships and content. Stir in some verbs like share, project, drive or create, and you can cook up a pretty decent mission statement.

Or you can decide we’re still here to sell more soap, and say so.

Paul Kitcatt is a consultant chief creative officer