Stuart Walsh, Chief Strategy Officer at Grey Advertising Africa, says the lack of ‘skin’ in the game in advertising creates an unfortunate credibility gap, especially when advice involves the client spending more money.

Every time you tell a client they should take more risks – that the greater the risk, the greater the reward – try it. See how easily it rolls off the tongue? That’s because it is not your money you are proposing gambling with. As one strategist put it, ‘Everything’s easy when someone else is paying for it’.

Downturns and budget cuts

What makes it doubly unfortunate is that even demonstrably sound advice is treated with circumspection. Never has this been more apparent than during 2020, the year of lockdowns, restrictions and personal, financial and health crises.

I doubt there is an advertising agency in the country that did not have to deal with clients cutting their budgets in the months following our first descent into lockdown. Advertising spend plummeted across most categories and brand building initiatives ground to a halt, despite all your advice to the contrary. But of course, you would advise to the contrary, wouldn’t you? We are ad agencies, after all. Well, yes, but not for those reasons.

In the subjective world of advertising, the argument around whether or not to advertise during a recession is probably about as close as we will ever come to a ‘settled’ debate or to anything resembling an indisputable fact. There is over a century of research and evidence all pointing to the benefits of advertising during a downturn and, consequently, to the negative effects of pulling advertising during such a period.

But this evidence seldom gets an airing beyond the desks in the planning department, serving no purpose other than to clog up strategists’ hard drives in the vain hope that one day somebody will see the argument and its indisputable truths. Instead, because of moral hazard, because we don’t have ‘skin in the game’, our recommendations are often seen as self-interest rather than impartiality.

Putting our money where our mouth is

Armed with the current research from the Scopen Agency Study, detailing exactly brands’ strengths and weaknesses relative to many competitors, set yourself some marketing and advertising objectives and write yourself a creative brief, just the same as you would for any other brand in your portfolio. Then put these OOH adverts for your own brand on billboards strategically placed to catch the eye of clients and agency staff.

These billboard creatives are the product of the same creative processes, the same reviews and the same budgetary constraints as experienced by all brands. Do for your own brand exactly what you do for your client brands on a daily basis. Although, it has to be said, this client certainly takes the cake when it comes to ‘difficult’.

Will people like the campaign? Some will. The boards are, if nothing else, amusing and will trigger a bit of playful rivalry with other agencies. Will people hate the campaign? Some will. Without a doubt. This is advertising after all and, if you have not yet learnt that trying to please everyone is a mug’s game, you might want to reconsider your career choices.

Most importantly, will it work? A campaign has three chances at success. If it attracts new clients to our brand, it works. If it attracts new talent to our brand, it works. And If it succeeds in dispelling the myth that agencies act out of self-interest in the mind of just one client, it works. Know that no campaign delivers immediate results, which is why continuous presence is so important.

Either way, any of these three results might just make those budget chats a little easier. As we enter year two of the pandemic and brands continue to operate under financial constraints while competing for customer awareness and loyalty, know how important it is to remain visible. It is time we all put some skin into this game.