When it comes to communication “keep it simple” is probably the first lesson I learned on my first day in an advertising agency. It’s not so contentious, of course, every agency I have come across since seems to take it as golden rule and every marketing person I talk to recites it often enough. So why then don’t agencies practice what they preach?

Most people who know me are aware of the work that I have done over the years helping marketing services firms around the world (not just advertising agencies) stay abreast of the market and grow their business and the first step in every case (just as it is with every client I am engaged by) is to get them to define their promise.

Maybe it’s a symptom of the hard times the industry has suffered or the paradigm shift that has taken place as a result of the advent of digital and the massive increase in the competitiveness of all our clients’ markets. Many agencies have been left behind (which is kind of survival of the fittest, seeing as we are supposed to be the thought leaders around here) and even some of those who have managed to stay in business have shown their desperation to maintain revenue by adopting a “we can do anything” approach to new business. As a result I’ve witnessed some wholly inappropriate agency appointments and the consequential fiasco this has proven for all concerned, more times that I could possibly recall.

Seeing as we are talking “golden rules” there’s another. It applies to any business, not just agencies and isn’t confined to websites.  The rule is “Get your ‘promise’ front and centre wherever anybody is likely to encounter you”. That means, for one thing, on every conceivable landing page of your website. Again, it’s not a new idea, it’s what straplines are for, but I’m seeing far too many communications where this just isn’t happening.  Tesco were very good at this with their “Every little helps” and Philips’ “Sense and simplicity” was equally effective. If you’ve built your brand model correctly, your headline in each case will be an example of one of the facts or pillars that support your “promise” and any text will serve to connect the dots between the headline and the strapline. Its simple when you think about it. To ensure that this happens you’ll have established a rule for your advertising guys to comply with. Philips, for example, stated that apart from every headline illustrating how the subject of that communication (usually a product or service) was a manifestation of one of its pillars, it would always use the word “sense” or “simplicity” and both these words (or their derivatives) had to appear at least once in any body copy (I can hear writers whinging as I say it but if you are in this business you’ll have to learn to stick to the rules).

A quick surf of the web is enough to illustrate that agencies everywhere are forgetting these basics. They are neither reminding their clients and keeping them on track nor are they representing them in their own promotional material.

In fact, I think agencies are so busy trying to be everything to everybody that they frequently forget what the job is. It’s almost as though they are afraid to commit to one particular offer in case that’s not the one that’s wanted. We all know that to establish close relationships you will probably alienate more people than you attract, but the relationships (or more specifically in this case the “Brandships”) you establish will be all the more substantial and valuable because they are built on stronger traits. People with vivid personalities have their detractors, but they also have more, and better friends than the bland boring guy, who never offends anyone and it’s a simple fact of life that the depth (or loyalty) of brandships is more important than their numbers. So why do agencies disregard this?

Websites should be a very strong indicator of how good an agency is at its job and when I read Bob Sanders’ piece this week it reminded me of some of the dreadful examples of woolly agency sites I have witnessed recently. It’s one thing to have a philosophy, but if your website is a long and esoteric lecture nobody is going to read it and they’ll certainly not click to connect. If your forte is creativity your site should be creative, of course, but if it’s just creative and creative for the sake of creativity, again it isn’t going to work. You need to make it clear how that creativity is going to work for your clients. Sometimes I think that not enough thought r attention to detail goes into these things.

There‘s a simple promise inherent in every brand and it’s our job as marketers to help our clients define theirs and communicate it simply and effectively. If we do nothing more than his, we will have made a contribution, but if we can’t even communicate our own promise then no client in their right mind is going to ask us to work with them.

Phil Darby
September 15, 2014

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