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BizTrends 2018

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Manufacturing Indaba 2018

Doctors and pop stars: lessons for ad agencies and marketers

Much has been written about the relationship between Michael Jackson and his doctor, Conrad Murray. And, of course, surely we've also been wondering whether Whitney Houston's doctor will go under the same microscope, no?
The relationship between Jackson and Murray was a microcosm of the deep dysfunction in Jackson's life over his final years. On one side was a pop legend struggling to overcome addictions to painkillers and plastic surgery so he could go out on the road one more time and show the world a little of his former glory; on the other was a man desperate, and indebted, enough to be tempted by a monthly pay cheque of $150,000 (£93,000) and indulge Jackson's craving for ever more powerful sedatives.
- The Guardian.

Sometimes-dysfunctional relationship

This got me thinking about the sometimes-dysfunctional relationship that exists between marketers and ad agencies - in fact, between any expert in a particular field, and the clients who pay their salaries.

An agency-client example: the ad agencies need the money, so they do work that they know is not right, that they don't like and don't believe in. They sit through endless meetings "pushing back", but ultimately get "pushed over", submit revert after revert into the creative stream, until the "just-give-them-what-they-want-and-get-it-out" moment.

The marketers believe that they must have the final say, because they pay the bills, and so force work through, even though they don't have the necessary skills to make the right decisions.

End result

And the end result? A consummate, complete and almost tragic waste of money, on sub-par advertising. A demoralising and frustrating, resentful, daily working relationship. The loss of any creative enthusiasm for the next project, and the continuation, and worsening, of the cycle.

For what? The desperate act of the agency, that will suck it up for the cash, will almost certainly result in the loss of the business for all the above reasons.

As speaker, environmental campaigner and swimmer Lewis Pugh (@LewisPugh) said on Twitter in February 2012: "Courage comes in many forms. Perhaps the greatest of all is standing alone against an injustice."

Same principles

Of course, he was talking about bigger, more important issues. And, in advertising, unlike the sad doctor-deluded patient example, no-one dies.

But the principles are the same.

Ad professionals: stand up for what you believe is right. And, if you are not heard, then perhaps the money is not worth the professional sacrifice. Flag this relationship with someone higher up in the organisation and get the correct balance of power in place (unless of course it is the chief who is the problem!).

Come back to bite you

But know this: if you don't, it will ultimately come back to bite you. It will affect your reputation, your staff morale, your company culture, your client relationship, your relationships with other clients. And, to top it all, you'll probably get fired anyway, eventually.

Marketers: consider the skills set at your disposal, in your agency. Let them do what they advise is the best solution to your business challenge. Of course, if they're no good, you need another, good, agency.

But there is a lot of excellent talent out there that is being told what to do, rather than being asked what to do.

And we've seen how well that works.

About Gillian Rightford

Gillian Rightford's CV is a mix of marketing, advertising, and management. A former Group MD of Lowe Bull, she started Adtherapy (, a consultancy that talks to agencies and marketers about all things advertising. Her mantra is 'to rid the world of bad advertising'. The rationale behind Adtherapy is 'better skills, better relationships, better results'. Adtherapy looks at enhancing these areas - mastery of skills; productive client/agency relationships; outstanding & effective creative output.
Adam Butchart
Whoa, Tiger! Speak for yourself...I'm a marketer on the other end of the spectrum have had to deal with agencies that propose a host of ideas that would never fly. One almost got the feeling it was a case of the agency just trying to pawn off whatever they could to make a quick buck and get on with the next job.I think there is a need for both parties to accept accountability for each campaign and treat it with the same diligence that they would if the campaign was about promoting themselves.It cuts both ways.
Posted on 30 Mar 2012 15:10
James Moffatt
^ Hi Adam, no agency with integrity and talent would ever pawn off an idea to make a quick buck. If you have experienced that, you weren't with a good agency.
Posted on 30 Mar 2012 17:15
Bob Broom
I agree with Adam; from having worked "both sides of the fence", I can only concur that there has to be give and take from both sides. All too often, ad agencies assume the role of marketers and believe they know as much (if not more) than the marketer about his markets. I have never found this to be remotely true. On the other hand, the old adage about an ad being as good as its brief is all -too-true. Marketers will traditionally play their cards close to their chest and perhaps not share enough info with the agency for them to create the right message. This came about (in my opinion and that of many colleagues) as a result of the fickleness of ad agency employees, especially those in client service, who might just conceivably be in possession of sensitive information that a competitive agency would find advantageous. I often shake my head in disbelief at some of the garbage I see and wonder how on earth a client could have signed it off?It's a complicated relationship, but one that can and does work, if each plays his/her role and long may that live.Hamba Kahle
Posted on 30 Mar 2012 17:25
Des Timm
I find that when clients know their company DNA, have spent the time to set the guidlines and markers for the process going forward and ultimately are in touch with their market by what ever means, the Dr. upholds his oath and ultimately the patient gets better or florishes going forward...but what do I know I am a just a packaging expert!
Posted on 31 Mar 2012 09:46
Rob Campbell
Gillian is absolutely right. She says that, "...sometimes-dysfunctional relationship that exists between marketers and ad agencies - in fact, between any expert in a particular field, and the clients who pay their salaries.", may lead to to a circumstance in which the Agency is forced to produce work that will not drive business or brand value.I would like to add that the, "sometimes-dysfunctional relationship" is becoming more prevalent, and the resultant increase in "dysfunctional work" impugns not only the advertiser and the agency, but the whole industry.
Posted on 2 Apr 2012 10:36