Managing marketing: the death of advertising and the power of creativity

Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Sean Cummins, Global CEO of Cummins and Partners talks with Darren on the difference between the Australian advertising industry and that in the USA, the fact that advertising is not dead and the need for advertisers to have more fun with their advertising to deliver greater effectiveness and make a difference to the marketplace.

Sean Cummins Podcast

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Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing. I’m here in New York city with Sean Cummins, Global CEO of Cummins and Partners, welcome Sean.

Sean:

Thanks Darren and thanks for having me, in fact, I’m having you, you’re in my house!

Darren:

Exactly. Here we are in Tribeca but look the first thing I wanted to say is congratulations on being elected, added to the Ad News Hall of Fame, that’s great news.

Sean:

It’s fantastic and I was told that it’s not something they don’t necessarily do every year, it’s when they feel someone was or is worthy and so that makes it feel a little bit better. As you said before, a lifetime achievement award suggests that maybe you haven’t got much more to contribute so it’s nice to be able to say, well I’m famous and could get more famous.

The stark contrast for me being over here now is that I’m in the Hall of Fame over there and on the corridors of anonymity of here, it’s really a different sort of scenario.

Darren:

Well I was wondering, did they give you a trophy or something?

Sean:

They did. It was a nice little A trophy, I felt like I could put it on a chain and walk around certain parts of Manhattan with my homies and kind of swagger but no, it’s somewhere downstairs just looking very proud but yeah, I haven’t been able to wave it around.

Darren:

I was thinking of trying to get into a hot nightclub in Manhattan, you could walk up and go, “Don’t you know who I am? Look, I’m a Hall of Famer!”

Sean:

Yeah, it would be good, but I haven’t really tried that yet but I might because it’s certainly, shaped in such a way that if ever I get in any trouble it’s quickly inserted so I think I could use it to great effect.

Darren:

A weapon of mass destruction.

Sean:

Yes, exactly.

Differences between the US and Australian markets

Darren:

Well look, we’ve made a couple of references to the fact that you’re in New York and congratulations making the leap and giving it a red hot go here. But what are the differences in what you expected the U.S. market to be like and what it’s actually been like?

Sean:

Yeah, the U.S. market is very different from the New York market. A couple of quick observations for anyone who’s thought about doing the same thing, is New York is not really resplendent with clients.

In fact, the client market here is in certain categories, mostly finance, some fashion, some retail and some pharma, but the real big brand advertisers are nowhere to be seen. They’re in mid-western states, they’re in you know…

Darren:

Chicago.

Sean:

Chicago, they’re in various other parts…

Darren:

Detroit.

Sean:

Detroit, Minnesota and various other parts of the United States but not in New York. And that was kind of a bit breathtaking and also a little bit scary because if you look at it on the outside, you think that New York is the hub of advertising and it’s a bit illusory, it’s actually not.

As that realisation struck me, I started to think about, well what work is coming out of here? And not a lot of great work is coming out of New York either. You know you see the bits and pieces from a couple of agencies and it’s okay but the bulk of the good work is still coming from the Widens, the Seventy-two in Sunny, the Crispins and they’re all regional bespoke agencies that grew up in Oregon or Portland or wherever they came from and actually not in New York city at all, not in a metropolis.

When I first started in New York, people were asking me, “Well what’s your point of difference?” and I was really trying to think of one because I thought is it media and creative together? Oh no, everything’s integrated. Oh no, is it this and that?

I realised that actually, the point of difference is our Australia-ness, just in the way that the point of difference of Wide and Kennedy was that provincial attitude and charm and point of view and world view, just the same way that Crispin was in Boulder, Colorado.

Your difference is often your origin and your provenance and having conversations with some really smart people about what we could be and what we could offer as a brand in the U.S. space is kind of like what we’ve been terming as the Australian rules of advertising, we do have a very interesting and dynamic way of approaching marketing and advertising in Australia and it’s our secret weapon.

That is what we’re going to be looking at presenting to the world in the next six months you know, in the New York context.

Darren:

Australian advertising at its best has a sort of larrikinism and a rebelliousness to it, a real challenger, I like that distinction you make about New York is not the U.S. and absolutely, everyone that I know working in New York in advertising says they spend most of their time on aeroplanes to go and visit their clients all over the country.

Sean:

Yes.

Darren:

But it just seems to me that Madison Avenue if that’s the distinction of New York advertising, has become very conservative and very staid.

Sean:

Oh yeah, very much so and that’s where I still think it’s an opportunity for the rise of the next great, hot, New York agency and I think Droga, God bless them, they’ve done really well at putting out work that’s pretty good.

My measure of worth is always, am I jealous of something? I think that’s always the most true thing, you know. If you intellectualise something as good or bad, that’s one thing but when I just see something and get jealous, I know that they or someone else has done something good and I’m not particularly jealous of anything that’s going on at the moment anywhere.

If there is such a thing as New York advertising, no one is doing it particularly well and therein lies the opportunity for someone, whether it be our agency if we get a break or not.

The other thing that’s really interesting about being in New York is the issue of scale. If you do not have scale, you’re probably going to fail. Skill is one thing, scale is everything. If you’ve got skill and scale, you’re going to win because clients do come in and count the photocopiers, they count the headcount, they do, all they think about is, “Will this agency be around in a year’s time?

How do I go back and tell my higher-ups that I’ve chosen a two-person start-up?”. Not going to happen.

“Well if they’re less than 50 people we’re not really that interested”

Darren:

That’s interesting because in the last couple of days in New York, I’ve managed to catch up with a couple of pitch consultants here, competitors, but it was interesting because we were talking about how you get to know agencies.

I said it must be increasingly difficult because of the breadth and depth of offering in the U.S. and they said, “Oh look, anyone under 50 people, we’re not even interested in”. And I was surprised because you know, we actually find the most exciting agencies are the ones that are two or three people today.

In fact, I remember in Australia going to see Three Drunk Monkeys when it was literally the three of them sitting in an office that looked like a crack den. I saw Droga5 Australia, rest in peace, when it was five of them sitting in borrowed offices, you know?

But that’s the exciting thing about the industry is things happen and things grow, ideas grow and businesses can grow for nothing but here, even the pitch consultants are going, “Well if they’re less than 50 people we’re not really that interested”.

Sean:

Absolutely. And also their methodology for choosing agencies is not particularly scientific, in fact, it pretty much is, “Oh such and such rang me last week, I’m going to put them on the, where’s their, oh yes, I remember them, they are so flooded.”

When I first met a pitch consultant, one of your competitors, I walked into a place which I swore was a veterinary clinic because there were animals running around and there was a strange reception desk and I went, “Am I in the right place? Yes, I’m in the right place.”.

I won’t name who they were. I got shuffled into a room, a kind of a boardroom I think but there was an exercise bike in it as well and I thought, “What’s going on here?” and then I wheeled around and I looked in the corner of the room and floor to almost ceiling was a stack of pitch documents, credentials documents and I was left there and so of course, what am I going to do? I go over to the…

Darren:

Started reading everyone’s credentials!

Sean:

Started reading all of them, and my heart sank because I just went, “I think we’ve created documents like that, in fact I know we’ve created documents like that”, and everyone sounded like everyone else and it was just so incredibly sad that there was just that same rhythm, that same look, that same presentation.

Someone had gone to a lot of trouble, or maybe no trouble, maybe it was just cut and paste, but there was a whole stack of them and it just reminded me how tough it is to break through here.

They say the rule of thumb is, do an outrageous piece of work, do a not-for-profit piece and get money. And I’ve not done either of those things. I’ve chosen to find little clients and do some work and we started off quite well.

We did the Bendon launch with Heidi Klum and we did a piece which we thought was remarkable, won a Cleo last year which was great but it was basically a film clip starring Heidi Klum in her lingerie, no mention of lingerie at all but that was the product placement. You know, I looked at the views yesterday and it’s had 50 million, five-zero million views in 11 months and that would put it in the ranks of the top most watched viral ad in the U.S.

So we’ve had a lot of fun getting those opportunities, then our guys from Australia crashed the Super Bowl with the Doritos spot, you’d think we’d probably get a bit of attention. But no, the great expression going around political circles from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders is, “You know the economy is rigged”, or, “the voting system is rigged”. The industry is kind of rigged.

It’s certainly geared towards big, safe agencies who’ve got all the shmatter, who’ve got all that you need and it’s that classic line, no one got fired for hiring IBM. Well no one got fired for hiring a WPP agency or an Omnicom agency and that’s the situation we’re in.

Darren:

I spent three days in Boca Raton in Florida talking about advertising financial management. Everyone is so focused on the business of advertising that it seems that they’ve forgotten the purpose of advertising.

The fun’s gone out of advertising

Sean:

Oh look, it’s….

Darren:

The fun’s gone out of it.

Sean:

Oh look, my first 12 months here was what I call my personal diligence. I wanted to meet everyone I could, see what the rhythm was like, see what their code language was like, see what they spoke about and from creative director to managing director to whatever candidate I was looking for, the first thing they spoke about was, “Yeah, I had a 5 million revenue business”, and they didn’t once speak about their great campaigns, it was kind of the work was ancillary to talking about the size and scale of the operation they were in.

The size and scale that they worked in is commensurate to their status or value in the market. “Oh no, he’s only worked in a 5 million revenue agency. We want a guy who’s 50 and above”, like somehow there’s a rule of thumb that once you’ve handled 50 million dollars’ worth of revenue, you are somehow a better, more capable person but not once was there any discussion, even from the creative people, about creativity and the output, it seemed totally like an afterthought.

Darren:

Well I really liked your article and your opinion on the fact that people have lost the fun. And in fact, great creativity comes from playful, fun, exploration of problems and creating ideas, doesn’t it?

Should advertising be non-offensive or take a stand?

Sean:

Yeah it does and I think in the American society in general, people here are brilliant talkers, they’re brilliant communicators and what happens is a lot of creativity gets monster-ed by a lot of people along the way because everyone talks a good game and kind of throws each other curve balls.

Everyone has to be incredibly conscious of every little nuance of everything that’s said. No one wants to take a risk of offending anybody and you take the Super Bowl commercial for example. The ultrasound spot with the baby and everything like that. It’s a bit of animation, it was fun and it was all in people’s imagination and the big problem is that offended people.

So Doritos wanted to back away from it at a million miles an hour even though it got the metrics of it being the most watched, most talked about and what won? A commercial with animals in it.

And what’s happening Darren is we are entering an era that, and I kid you not, people are so sensitive about offending anybody, we will be watching animals and illustrations and maybe even illustrations are not going to animation, because we can’t afford to project or present people anymore because someone’s going to be offended.

I’m a middle-aged white man, I’m offended for looking dumb. Oh there’s not enough you know, diversity in that commercial. We’ve got to a really, really strange point where the safest thing to do is just talk about animals and let’s just anthropomorphise them and life will go on.

Darren:

Look, I absolutely agree with you because one of the things, and I lay the blame for this at Kevin Roberts’ feet okay? When he wrote Lovemarks, and I know it’s 20 years or 15 years old right, it was this whole idea that people should love your brand but I think what everyone’s interpreted that as, is that we should be non-offensive so that you can love us.

In actual fact, I think love actually means making a choice and you can only make a choice if something stands for something and you can either chose it or you chose to hate it because the level of passion is directly proportional to in some ways how polarising it is.

Sean:

That’s so true. It’s so true and you know I grew up in a time where challenger brands, and having worked a lot with Richard Branson and Virgin in the early days of Virgin in Australia, we’d have meetings about how to sit down and tear strips off Qantas, anything they’d do wrong, they were fair game.

You went out there to humiliate, you went out there to be cheeky. You never wanted to do cheap shots, but you certainly wanted to do clever, witty shots. These days you just can’t offend anybody and you can’t be competitive and American advertising has always had a very fine tradition of comparative advertising which I don’t mind actually but it’s come to a point where it’s so sanitised that you don’t know, “Hang on, at the end of all this comparison, who do I choose again?”.

No one makes absolute claims, it kind of fades away so you never get a conclusive point of view about anything, you just see two brands on the screen and you can’t remember what the story was.

But we are in an era where we’ve lost our teeth. We’ve lost our ability to actually bite into something and be provocative.

Darren:

Stand for something.

Sean:

Stand for something, yeah.

Lessons from the political situation

Darren:

If you want a prime example, look at the American politics at the moment. You’ve got Donald Trump who absolutely stands for what a group of disenfranchised people in the community clearly feels about their lives.

While he’s got a large group of people who can’t stand him, the people that are for him are so passionately for him and that’s what passion does. By standing for something people are passionately supporting you or passionately against you.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this and I think we’ve talked about it in the past. When you do what you and I do, which is stand up and say what you believe, then there are going to be those people that say to you, “Oh, you’re absolutely a hundred percent right” and there’ll be an equal number that say, “You’re absolutely a hundred percent wrong”.

I don’t mind because I’m willing to have people hate me if it means there’s another group of people here that are passionate about what I do.

Sean:

Yeah it’s funny that. I agree with that. I have been cast sometimes as a polarising figure or pantomime baddy and if…

Darren:

Hang on, a pantomime baddy is only one side of the coin, right? You’re focusing on the people that hate you.

Sean:

Yeah well I do because I’m incredibly sensitive Darren, I can’t help it. If you said to me, “What’s your MO in life?” I want to be a pleaser and the first people I want to please are clients. So I wipe out and forget about you know, the industry.

If we indeed have an industry or a thing called an advertising industry, I’m not aware of it. I know there are people who work in the same business as me but there’s never been an industry that’s supported me.

But my point, it may be poorly made, is, I’ve only been interested in the client and maybe that attention to working for the client has made me very hardcore and focused and it’s sort of a disinterest for anything else and that’s something that you know, I probably could have been more diplomatic about or…

You’ll never get 100% of the market anyway

Darren:

But you can’t, no one can get 100% of the clients. Tell me an agency, an agency in any market that’s got more than say 5% of the marketplace.

Sean:

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Darren:

Right? So at best, you’re going to get 5%, right?

Sean:

Yeah.

Darren:

That means 95% have chosen someone else.

Sean:

Yes.

Darren:

So why would you position yourself to want 100% of those 95% to work with you when if you could just get 40% of the 90% passionately wanting to work with you because the other 60% of that 90% can’t stand you, in fact, they openly say, “He’s an idiot, they’re hopeless, we hate them”, but the other 40. I mean, Justin Beiber! Justin Beiber has his, what are they called?

Sean:

Beliebers.

Darren:

Beliebers. I was going to say Beiberites but…

Sean:

My daughter is one of them.

Darren:

Yeah, right? But then I know as many people that go, “Oh he’s hopeless, we don’t like his music, look at all that stuff he’s doing”, you know and will put him down. I’m sure he doesn’t worry about them because he’s got all these people around him that say, “Isn’t he terrific?”.

Donald Trump, he’s got this group of people that have taken him to the leadership of the Republican Party in America.

Sean:

Incredible, yeah.

Darren:

Right? Taken him to the leadership. Now, they’re all saying that he won’t win because there’s 60% of the population that don’t support him at all but then I read a thing yesterday that said they reckon less than 50% of the eligible voters will actually turn out.

So whether it’s Hilary or whether it’s Donald, less than half of the population are going to elect them anyway.

Sean:

Yeah in a democracy, it’s like two wolves and a lamb deciding what they’re going to have for dinner. At the end of the day it’s going to be the most motivated that will tilt that one way or another and you’d think it will be Hilary.

But, if you can look it up in the Googletron somewhere, I was interviewed by Shoot Magazine around about June or July last year and it was called the half yearly report. They asked the usual questions like what brands do you think have stood out and what do you think is going on in the future and it was nothing to do with politics or anything but just for a laugh.

But a laugh with an absolute grain of truth, my answer to every question was, “Donald Trump”, you know. “What’s the most exciting brand?”, or “Who’s doing…” and I went, “Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump” and my sort of closing thing was, “This guy could be the President of the United States and everyone kind of rolled their eyes and said, “He’s an idiot”.

But what’s at stake here is not Donald Trump, it’s about brand politics. The brand of, brand politics is broken. This whole narrative about an outsider coming in and doing something different, that’s Donald Trump. He’s just trying to be an alternative to politics and that’s what’s making this so interesting.

Darren:

He’s a challenger brand in the category of politics.

Sean:

He’s a challenger brand in a category, in a monopoly, yeah.

Darren:

So Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than people talking about you is not talking about you”.

Sean:

That’s true, yeah.

Darren:

I mean, have marketers and businesses lost sight of the fact that we’re in the business of having people talk about us, positively or negatively…

Sean:

Yes, yes!

Darren:

Because if they’re talking about us, then we’re top of mind…

Sean:

Yes.

Darren:

Therefore, we’re in consideration.

Sean:

Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I think there’s such a powerful narrative with people having an opinion and they are willing to lose sometimes because really, who are you really losing with?

If you know your customer, if you know your audience, if you know your product then it’s really the commentariat. The commentariat and journalists and this whole sort of media performance is all about being adversarial.

They don’t sit down and go, “So Sean, you’re awesome”, that’s not adversarial. The first thing they say is, “Sean, you’re a polarising character, why do you think this is?” That’s,  what gets things going.

So you’re always going to have people whose job it is to find the opposing view in order to bubble something up and I just think that it would be good if people were brave and I think Donald Trump will be permission for a lot of people to speak their mind and I think that’s a good thing because if this country is about freedom of speech, there’s a lot of people who are not wanting to hear people say things and I think that’s kind of sad.

So, have we seen the death of advertising?

Darren:

So this idea of getting your message out there and standing for something, isn’t that what advertising is about? Aren’t all these people, especially the tech start-ups telling us that advertising is dead, aren’t they actually missing the point of what advertising does?

Sean:

Yeah, advertising is in a bit of a parlour-state at the moment, I call it fadvertising because every fad that’s coming out. We can roll them out from any gadget and gizmo and technique whether it be virtual reality or 3D printing or God knows whatever comes down the tech pipeline.

That is often being substituted for an idea and I do think advertising’s been in the dark ages for a little bit where dreamers and persuaders and great thinkers and romantics have been quelled by, “No, let’s prove it with Science and here’s this and you know, technology will give us a return and we’ll know exactly how many people saw that and that will make us good”.

I think that there will be a rise again of the theatrical, the poets, the people who can put out messages that capture a nation’s spirit or a brand’s sense of itself. So I’m looking forward to the swing back because we’re probably at the low-eb of things at the moment where we’re just doing fad-ish stuff that looks like advertising.

I don’t think people are working in advertising at the moment, I think we’re working in this sort of strange type of content, we’re just kind of filling out stuff, we’re just doing press releases, we’re just doing stuff that we hope runs somewhere because we’ve got no faith in the media anymore, particularly the online media and I think there’s going to be a renaissance. After any dark age there is always going to be a renaissance.

I want to be around for that. I walk around every day and I see people who do not know shit about advertising, don’t know how to persuade someone to buy something, don’t know how to break down a brand or a product and find that little gem, that little nugget that makes people want to buy that over something else or find that unique aura.

So anyone that’s older than 45 that thinks they don’t have a place in advertising, hang on! Hang on! You are required.

Some things never change

Darren:

You’re also addressing the whole ageist issue but I think what people have missed is that in all of these technologies, especially social media, the big thing is about engagement and the fact that you can have a two-way conversation.

But there was an interesting study done and it was a couple of years ago now when YouTube first started issuing the sort of numbers that their videos would get and they looked at the top ten and there was a big peak as soon as any of those videos went on television, right?

They would build organically and then when it went on television, the peak would go up and that’s when it would escalate from there. What we forget is that there is a huge requirement for awareness, right? That advertising doesn’t even need to be about engagement.

There are now many other things that are much better at getting engagement and conversation but just for sheer awareness – because no one knows who you are until they’re aware of you – great advertising is still the most powerful way of making people aware of your brand and if they’re talking about it and your brand message is thought provoking or challenging, then there is still a huge power in going from zero to hero through advertising because I still defy anyone to do that through social media.

Sean:

Oh, you hit the….

Darren:

You can do it over time, but you can’t do it as quick as you can with a piece of great advertising.

Sean:

Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. There’s two things in that, it’s the YOLO which is “You only launch once”. I worked in cars a lot over the years, you know how important it is to launch something steadfast and true and thoughtful to get people to consider the brand.

So the launch dynamic people have forgotten about. And the other thing you said, awareness is incredibly important. You only have to take a subway, I take a subway everywhere, I’m a man of the people and every subway carriage has advertising inside it and every brand in that advertising is an app based or tech based or an online based company.

Darren:

Yep.

Sean:

Whether it’s diagnose doctor service or whether it’s a home delivery of food or whether it’s tickets online or something like that, they’re all doing the classic awareness stuff because they’ve just got to get brand recognition because at the end of the day, certain things never change.

Quick, think of a brand in that category – that doesn’t come through any other means than awareness and top of mind awareness. And how do you get that awareness?

Darren:

PR, advertising.

Sean:

Repetition.

Darren:

You mentioned cars, Tesla, it’s all about public relations, keeping it constantly in the mind but also incredibly challenging.

Sean:

Yeah.

Darren:

If you had have said 5 years ago that an electric only, because everyone else went to Hybrids, it just completely challenged and used the challenger to create the story.

Advertising can disrupt the news cycle, right? PR, good PR can disrupt the news cycle. But not everyone’s a Tesla. Do you remember when every client said, “I want to be like Nike”, or “I want to be like Apple”? Now they all want to be like Tesla and I go, “Great, can you find me a biscuit that is as innovative as an electric car?”

Sean:

It’s funny. When you said that I think about in the early days of Virgin, when the Virgin Blue campaign first came out and it had that kind of joy and that Aussieness and that spirit and that challenger quality, every week I’d get a phone call saying, “Hi, we think we’re the Virgin of dog food”, and I’m kind of going, “The Virgin of dog food, that’s great” but you know, isn’t that lovely?

I think any brand does pretty well to look at other brands as a metaphor and analogy but really, in of themselves they maybe can’t intrinsically be a Virgin or a Tesla of another category.

But it’s nice to think that can have that sort of impact if you do it well and that a brand’s work can actually affect the advertising and I’d hope that that continues because at the moment, advertising is being affected by the wrong things; fadishness, tech, they’re implementers and they’re enablers and they’re executional things.

If we do not reclaim advertising which is persuasion, which is social movements, which is doing, putting out good messages that can resonate with people for years, then we’re just going to be momentary, our work is going to come and go and you’re going to look back and go, “Oh my God I can’t believe I did a hologram ad, what was I thinking because it’s over!”.

I’d like to do campaigns that endure, I like campaigns that I’ve worked on and my agency has worked on that last a long time. That’s how you know you’re still in advertising.

Darren:

That’s brilliant. Sean, we’ve run out of time.

Sean:

We haven’t, no! I’ll get another cup of tea.

Darren:

This has been fantastic.

Sean:

Thanks Darren.

Darren:

It’s great to catch up.

Sean:

Yeah, likewise, likewise.

Darren:

And all the best.

Sean:

Thanks.

Darren:

I really admire the fact that you’re giving it a red hot Aussie go.

Sean:

I am!

Darren:

Oi, oi, oi!

Sean:

I’m enjoying it until my visa runs out and I’ll review afterwards.

Enjoy this podcast? You can find more of them here

 

About Darren Woolley

Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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