The ugly truth about advertising (as told by David Nobay)

Date posted: October 3, 2012


by Herman Manson (@marklives) After all the rah rah of the last couple of weeks  around the annual advertising backslap it was nice of David Nobay, Creative Chairman at Droga5 in Sydney, to sit us all down and share some of the harder truths of advertising.

He had five of them in fact.
1. Not all clients want great work
2. There are too many of us
3. We lost our exotic
4. We’ve forgotten how to sell
5. We reward mediocrity

Chris Moerdyk eat your heart out. As everybody grabbed for their iPhones to check in on Twitter and see which ECD would be first to denounce Nobay an ‘enemy of the creative industry’ the man himself happily droned on in the presentation that made the seminar worth its 500 bucks.

That would be the grandly named International Seminar of Creativity hosted by the Loerie Awards in Cape Town City Hall as part of Creative Week.

Nobay, noting an arrogance in the trade when it comes to ‘creativity’ and ‘advertising,’ or at least what creative types in advertising consider creative work, says clients often have practical reasons for not implementing your potentially Loerie winning idea.

This is also the problem with award shows today said Nobay – they oversimplify what is considered ‘creative.’ Awarding winning work has become a matter of looking at a piece of work and having an immediate reaction (on the judges part) to it before moving to the next piece.

“We are in this business to make money,” Nobay told his stunned audience, “Or we would all have become artists.” Great work, according to Nobay, is really a moving target, isn’t really tangible and lots of clients are running businesses in maintenance mode, while ‘award winning creative’ has become all about the new.

As a quick aside Nobay suggested that the trade, obsessed with rankings as it is, start ranking clients. This isn’t a half bad idea and would certainly put awards tables in perspective at the next pitch meeting. In fact it would probably take it off the table completely.

Nobay also believes there are too many of us (ad folk). He describes Sydney as ‘clogged up with creative people’ that means smaller pieces of the money pie has to go round to sustain an ever growing number of creatives. It also means many clients no longer need large agencies.

This is also true of Cape Town where there are many freelancers active – including some of the best talent around. Now freelancers are organising themselves into teams with project managers from small agencies managing client relationships and admin and them doing what they best at be that strategy, creative, production etc.

At Droga5, says Nobay, clients can expect to see fewer but more senior people in the room, setting the scene for a more powerful conversation. This is pretty much the strategy brought to South Africa by Mike Abel with M&C Saatchi Abel, which has shot up in little over two years to become a significant agency known for the seniority of the people it’s able to bring to the table.

One of the major shifts the advertising world has struggled to adapt to has been the marketing and advertising knowledge transfer to executive level in the client environment. Complain as much about the juniorisation of marketing departments as you wish, the fact remains that more people on client side understand more about the dynamics of marketing and communication than at any time before, meaning the ad industry has ‘lost its exotic.’

Once clients didn’t know or understand what ad agencies did, but they do now, says Nobay. In its heyday advertising execs could run rough-shot over clients, just watch an episode of the TV series Mad Men, or listen to any of the old timers reminiscing over a couple of drinks. Today even juniors at client meetings undermine agency presentations, says Nobay, who also points out that a middle way need to be found, as neither the Mad Men or the new reality is sustainable over the long term.

Nobay urges to industry to be relevant rather than to try and be special in an effort prove to clients that creative people really are interested in their business and their bottom line.

Nobay also believes much of the industry have forgotten how to sell. Creatives dream creative while really they should be selling stuff. Including their own great ideas! Invest in training staff to sell, says Nobay, which is an interesting (and relevant) space for creative agencies to think about and work in.

Finally, says Nobay, our culture rewards mediocrity. Look no further than Karaoke, where you can be terrible, and still garner a round of applause. Genuine creativity really lives in the dreams of children (who often learn through falling down, and getting up again). As an industry we should also celebrate great failure, and clients should be encouraged to put aside a part of their budget for work they might not normally have commissioned, and to experiment (as Droga5 and Unilever Domestos did with this Australian ad called “Meet Phill Pace”).

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