A long time ago, I sat through a long meeting as our client's chief executive threw scorn at the rough cut of an ad that had just been shown to him. 'That young man's hair is completely unacceptable,' he said. 'Our brand is wholesome, respectable; we can't have people like that in our advertising.'
The creatives in the room groaned inwardly. The ad was aimed at teenagers, a nation entirely alien to this guy. He knew nothing, but felt compelled both to have an opinion, and to impress his authority on these upstarts.
As Charlie Dobres, who co-founded i-level with me, used to put it: 'The thing about advertising is, everyone approaches it with an open mouth.'
When we started our agency in 1999, we were excited by the prospect that digital could move us on from these prejudices. We could start to make decisions based on data, rather than just opinion, and while creativity, insight and spark would still be a vital part of the business, it could now be informed by real understanding.
We could tie our success to that of our clients, working to objectives that were aligned, rather than spurious measures like discount against station price. We could demonstrate uplifts in sales, account for them, and clients would pay more if this justified it.
It would be nothing short of a revolution. Digital offered the opportunity to reinvent agencies' relationship with clients - from cost to value.
So, has this turned out to be the case?
Some marketers and their procurement departments get it. They have seized the opportunity digital presents, and drive relentlessly for effectiveness. Yet there remains a sizeable part of the business that is solely influenced by cost - either because they lack the means properly to measure success, are personally incentivised otherwise, or are simply unwilling to share in that success with anyone else.
In recent weeks, Belgian agencies have protested against unreasonable pitch demands, News International Commercial chief Paul Hayes has called for agencies to stand up for value, and leaders have appeared in the trade press criticising abusive agency relationships.
All this has been focused on offline media, where it has always been harder to measure real value. Perhaps we can expect it there, but what's surprising is how common this is in digital, too.
One company I know has the sales target sitting with the head of online, while the search budget lies with marketing. Not only is the marketing department not interested in results, as far as it's concerned, an agency that delivers double, but costs 1% more, is simply an additional cost. Another has simply instructed its procurement department to cut costs, so a guarantee to deliver a £4m sales uplift is of no interest, if it costs £200,000 more in fees.
Others have conducted auctions for the lowest fees and media costs for their business. Would these people auction the delivery of their chemotherapy or the provision of their parents' care home? Perhaps they would; and they run the same risk.
Because while it's easy to criticise agencies for providing insufficiently experienced staff, poor oversight and off-the-shelf solutions, many of these are good businesses, providing a service designed to appeal to a viable market segment. This is a big segment, and it's one that likes to shop at Netto, but thinks it's shopping at Waitrose.
Online or offline, if agencies can't make money delivering quality service, over time they will adapt to market conditions; cutting fees and trimming service and investment to match.
I used to think these agencies were lazy. Perhaps I was wrong - maybe it's just good marketing.
- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level.
30 SECONDS ON ... Netto
- Discount supermarket chain Netto opened its first store in 1981 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
- Owned by the £3bn conglomerate AP Moller-Maersk Gruppen, which has interests including container shipping, oil and gas, Netto now has more than 1000 stores across Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Poland and the UK.
- Netto arrived in the UK in 1990, setting up its headquarters in South Elmsall, West Yorkshire. It opened its first store in Leeds in December 1990, but soon expanded from its core territory in northern industrial towns. The chain now has nearly 200 stores across England and Wales, but none yet in Scotland. It plans to open at least a further 20 stores every year.
- One of the first European discount supermarkets to enter the UK, Netto adopted a no-frills approach, with a simple store layout and streamlined product offering - for example, carrying only the leading pasta brand and its own-label equivalent - to keep prices down.