Dom Mellin, Senior Media Planner, pens his thoughts on industry culture change.


“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.” - Peter Senge

Despite being addressed to the topic of business management and internal organisation, Senge’s comment on the inimitable nature of People (capital P) is not limited to corporate communications. The elementary psychologies of dealing with a team of employees spans scenarios and objectives, providing a simple set of ground rules with which we must anchor nearly all of our communications strategies. Here, however, I’m referring to the former: the way we work as an industry.

Senge is probably one to trust – he was named Strategist of the Century by The Journal of Business Strategy.

Creative and advertising legend Bill Bernbach asserted that the fundamental aspects of human behaviour don’t change much over time. Deep in the human psyche, there is a reason for every action and every reaction – it is up to us, as analysts, to explore them.

Bernbach annoyingly said a few other things; one of which was that “there are a lot of great technicians in advertising… they are the scientists of advertising. But there's one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

Don’t worry, because I’m not going to spend the next five hundred words listing out quotations and expecting you to assemble them into some sort of cohesive structure. I say that Bernbach’s second pithy remark annoys me: it does so only because it stands directly at odds with his first.

The scientist and technicians of advertising are the academic minds who are integral to exploring the human psyche and laying down the foundations upon which strategies can be built. Advertising is behavioural, psychological and social before it is anything. Any student of the profession will tell you that advertising is narrative, from company board to story board, and it is weaving a compelling romance through the numbers that ensures you’ll sell your idea or your product. Some agencies embrace this wholeheartedly, and they rest all of their credentials on data and technology.

And then there is the creatively-led agencies – those of Bernbach’s ilk, who put the art of their work before the strategy, and believe that creative genius is worth more than creative application. If an ad wins over Cannes, who cares if it wins over the target market? Bernbach spent his early career overcoming the dinosaurs of the past, so is it naïve to think we won’t have to overcome the dinosaurs in our industry today?

The issue with many agencies, as well as the companies who employ them, is that these ‘left-brain, right-brain’ ways of thinking have become divisive and polarising. I have worked in teams who will try and work backwards from the creative lynchpin of a campaign, retroactively making the audience fit around it with carefully cherry-picked data. Some will ignore data altogether, walking into boardrooms with anecdotal evidence for positioning multi-million-pound marketing budgets.

And some will walk in with walls of numbers and pages upon pages of charts, all demonstrating the depth of knowledge they have on an audience they couldn’t pull the first headline out of. Gobbets of information on device usage will spew from a slide, but conclusions are few and far between, and they rarely inform any creative planning.

Let’s use calculus as an analogy for a second. Differential calculus deals with the division of a whole to track changes – the same way that creative and scientific advertising differentiates to show the worth of its own particular brand of advertising. Integral calculus adds all of those pieces together to create a sum whole.

As an industry, do we want to differentiate or integrate?

It is still very common for most client companies to hire a creative agency alongside a media or strategic agency, and the level of cooperation is startling even at the highest level. I’ve worked in tier-one agencies where PowerPoint files have been grafted together hours before a presentation, hanging the need for a consistent format or storyline and essentially emphasising the two agencies in the room and how separately they operate. I’ve been in pitches where teams from the same agency haven’t been able to bring their narrative together, segueing wildly between creative strategists and digital ad-ops who work metres away from each other as if they’d never even met.

This may be, in part, due to the network desire to buy up specialist companies and allow them to maintain their identity within the wider network structure. It may be because there simply aren’t that many truly integrated agencies left – and even then, those agencies will rarely get full control of campaign planning from research to asset production. But agencies existing within a network isn’t the same as disciplines existing within an agency.

A structural fix in agencies is perhaps a tall order, however. A twofold change in culture would lead to better integration and truly effective work – firstly, in that conglomerate advertising accounts would be awarded to singular agencies, interviewed on the basis of culture and like-mindedness, pitching full campaign ideas that demonstrate skills across the multiple disciplines of the sector.

If that culture change weren’t to take place (as it hinges almost exclusively on client company culture), secondarily, we must address the way we approach planning. Strategic planning is just as much an area for creative directors as it is for media planners, as channel choice and direction should be a voice within the designer’s studio. Too frequently are teams working independently of one another, brought into processes too late, or simply omitted from the planning stage.

We need to change our culture to produce truly effective advertising – by balancing the art and the science to create adverts that are relevant to people and that those people really want to see.

The hard part is, of course, persuading anyone to do that.

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.

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