Gorillas in the mist

Standout ‘gorilla’ ad campaigns are an endangered species. Here’s what clients must do to increase their numbers, writes David Meikle

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Great ad campaigns are remarkably rare. Despite the best efforts of marketers and the vast talent in agencies across the great creative cities of the world, excellence remains elusive. So much so that when you do encounter one, it’s arresting. I call these kinds of ads ‘gorillas’. They have strength, stopping power, and they’re compelling to watch – in fact you can’t take your eyes off them. They’re usually unconventional – in content, format and style – but they have the confidence to carry that unconventionality off. So why is there still so much that leaves us flat and uninspired?

Some of the answer comes from expectations. Many leading brands still essentially believe that great campaigns arise from a confection of luck and serendipity. Of course, their marketers do everything in their power to develop them: they hire the best agency they can get, they push for a better product or service proposition, they lobby for bigger budgets. But – unless all the stars align – they may nevertheless have to settle for something that’s just okay. That mediocrity is, to some degree, tolerated. Here’s the news: you can improve those odds. There are two things that make for the creation of an inspiring idea. Let’s call them ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’.

Nature includes the product, the brand, the insight, the strategy, the brief, the proposition. But even if you give your agency a great brief, although it will radically improve your chances of getting great work from it compared to a poor brief, it doesn’t by any means guarantee it.

Nurture on the other hand, can be described as the way clients pay their agencies, how much they pay them, the clients’ processes, their behaviours and ability to buy breakthrough ideas. But again, while the right nurturing environment is no guarantee of greatness on its own, it, too, will radically improve a brand’s chances of getting something transformational from their agency.

When combined in the right proportions, good nature and the right kind of nurture make the most powerful combination, which is most likely to produce the outstanding work brands want. Yet, in most cases, a disproportionate amount of time and effort is expended on nature alone – and the nurture is often overlooked, taken for granted or – at best – based on a generic idea of ‘best practice’, rather than being aligned with the specific needs of the brand. This imbalance between nature and nurture is akin to a farmer investing in the highest yielding seed but ignoring the quality of his soil.

While there are many facets of nurture we could examine, let’s look at a key one. That is the level of control a client commands over their agency. Control is the degree to which a client company imposes its will on the agency – everything from the strategy, to its use of advertising research, to choosing photographers or directors, to time constraints or even the classic demand to “make our logo bigger”.

There is both a point of critical mass and one of diminishing returns on the continuum of how much control is imposed on an agency. Too little, and the agency is out of control – neither client nor agency know what the agency is doing and the whole thing is chaos. But apply too much, and the value the marketer seeks to elicit is diminished and its return on investment is consequently reduced.

Consider the relationship between a doctor and three patients. Patient One doesn’t tell their doctor everything that’s wrong, perhaps to spare their blushes, and ignores the medic’s advice on their diet, drinking and lifestyle – we are all set for a bad outcome with control below critical mass. At the other extreme, Patient Two self-diagnoses, goes to the doctor and tells them what’s wrong, demands prescriptions of their choosing and self-medicates – the higher risk and diminished return of too much control. Somewhere in the middle is Patient Three, who goes to the doctor, tells them everything, even stuff they think the doctor may not need to know. Patient Three listens keenly to the doctor’s advice and follows it as well as they can. Just right.

It is of course obvious which patients are at greatest risk and which are most likely to be the healthiest. But we can also ask which patient can hold their doctor to any level of accountability for their outcome. Some readers will argue that a client-agency relationship isn’t the same as that between doctor and patient, because it’s commercial not medical. Well, we could consider a private physician instead. When we remember the fates of Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Don Simpson it generally strengthens my argument. Most importantly, as David Ogilvy succinctly put it, if a client has a dog and barks themself, the outcome – the value – is limited by their own ability. The point of hiring an agency is to elicit value greater than a client’s own ability.

The world’s strongest brands have understood this and have been buying campaigns and building their brands that way for decades. They generally have happy, productive and longstanding client-agency relationships. Consequently, their brands are resilient to newcomers to their markets, they innovate and inspire their existing customers, and they can continue to attract new ones. Brands that don’t pay attention to nurture tend to plot more erratic paths of sales with less predictable peaks and troughs. They’re more vulnerable to newcomers and other market leaders whose advertising might be more consistently good. But to stabilize their sales peaks they need to embrace gorilla brand thinking and develop their nurturing skills.

Sadly, it’s rarely possible to turn a brand into a gorilla brand overnight. Relationships take time to change. Many clients are with the right agency, but have not yet worked out how best to run their relationship with them. So what should they do? The answer is: change something. A good starting point is control – many clients command too much (although a few command too little). Letting go is hard, but it is often the way to grow, so address the matter immediately. There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

David Meikle is author of How to Buy a Gorilla, LID Publishing