Sun Tzu – The Art of Advertising

sun-tzu-art-of-war-bookThere has been the same rallying cry from ad agencies since the GFC that we have lost our way. Ad agencies have more and more assumed a slave-like role when tending their marketer’s needs (think of the captured Roman slaves waving the peacock feathers over their conquerors who lie prostrate on a chez-longe for a visual.)

The general consensus is that there has been a general emasculating of ad agencies. At the center of this has been the agencies willingness to do anything (ANYTHING) to retain the client to the point of absurdity… (we’ll throw in the creative product for free immediately springs to mind.)

Enter, The Art of War. It’s one of those books everyone who is an asshole, reads. In fact even if you are not an asshole you can still read it. It’s all about military divide and conquer tactics written over 1,300 years ago. And pretty much every middle level manager has a copy tucked away somewhere.

What is staggering is in an industry as brutal as advertising (here one minute, gone the next) a lot of Sun Tzu’s pieces of advice are not only not adhered to, but they are completely disregarded.

For this reason, it may seem prescient to compare a few pieces of advice and relate them to today’s climate.

1. Sun Tzu said: A clever fighter is one who not only wins but excel in winning with ease.

So why do ad agencies constantly fight the hard fight? It’s the mantra that an ad that doesn’t leave half the creative department weary from late nights and the account managers bloody is simply not a good ad. The ad industry subscribes to the old adage of 99% perspiration 1% inspiration a little too much. Indeed, even Erik Vervroegen stated in an interview that the best work comes at 5am in the morning. Then why do we struggle in fighting the hard fight and not the easy fight?

Quite often you hear of the struggle where the same piece of work is presented more than once, often up until the double digits until the client either caves in, or they call for a pitch. Why exactly are agencies selling in work that clients just don’t want? It’s a question that an entire book could be written on.

Agencies essentially fight the hard fight, and quite often unsuccessfully.

And how do the clients fight their fight? Well, like Sun Tzu suggested, The Clever Way. They fight their arguments with ease. The “we employ you, and so therefore you do what we tell you,” is often used in meetings in a variety of forms. In one instance, I had an award entry that needed sign off from a client who just wouldn’t give his signature. His reasoning was “you don’t tell me to do anything. I tell you.” The piece of work ended up in the trash despite having run.

The clients are fighting the easy fight because they simply know they have the power, and they can fight with ease. “Ad agencies don’t tell us what to do. We tell them.” It’s not exactly the sort of thing that Mad Men would approve of, but at the same time, you could objectively argue it makes for a less self-indulgent industry.

Except, when the client uses it to indulge its own creative muscle. Not for any other reason other than they can. Then it becomes dangerous, and the product understandably suffers.

2. Sun Tzu said: Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision to the releasing of a trigger.

In the last point I swayed more into the fact that clients are often in battle with their respective agencies. This is largely true. The great war wages internally rather than against any competitor where the efforts are rationally best spent. This second quote from Sun Tzu, relates more to the war that we do wage on our competitor. The decisions made to launch a campaign do, or at least should, be treated like the releasing of a trigger. However on both agency and client side there are many triggers. More than 10 in fact. And each of them are released at different times. In fact you might even have an arrow half way through the air when another trigger is not released, thus disabling the arrow and making it useless. How is this the case? How can an agency / client relationship allow this to happen?

The degree of uncertainty in any chain of command is messy at the best of times but generally it is a system. It is a chain. The General advises and through a wave of Chinese whispers the action is implemented largely as he or she has decreed. However especially since the GFC there has been an added pressure and accountability from procurement on both the agency as well as (more importantly) the client’s side. So now rather than you have two lines of command to agree to release the trigger, you now also have two more in the form of procurement. But it doesn’t end there.

On any international account you then have reporting back to the regional hubs. Both on agency side. And on client side. And they also have their procurement departments.

The arrow in some instances might already be in the bull’s-eye when a trigger puller orders everything to be rescinded and the arrow to be silenced. Budgets are redrawn, and a new arrow on a different campaign is focused on.

3. Sun Tzu said: He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.

It is common knowledge that in these financial times, both R&D as well marketing has faced its fair share of cuts no matter how sensible or misjudged they have been. As foresight has been trimmed, most clients have viewed innovation especially in marketing as a luxury.

In fact the only innovation has been through social media but that in part is driven by advances in the tech market and not through any innate skill of the marketing department, contrary to what they may like to believe.

In terms of advertising and marketing more and more has come to rely on what others have done. And what others have done has been based on what other others have done. In this world and present climate, the words creativity and innovation are being heard less and less and the forethought of trying new and different things is seen as risky to all involved save for the very best ad agencies, who have a series of different problems to face.

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