When did advertising forget its brand purpose?

Interesting that not a week goes by when someone raises the issue of brand purpose and the need for brand to have a purpose beyond creating customers, to a higher order of ‘doing good’ to appeal to a Millennial generation. In the pursuit of a brand purpose we have seen missteps from brands as famous as Pepsi and Gillette, but we have also seen successes from brands built on purpose such as Nike, The Body Shop, Patagonia and more.

But it makes me reflect on when was it that agencies lost sight of their ‘purpose’ being some variation of making their clients brands famous, renowned and on the consideration list of more consumers leading to revenue growth?

While the call for marketers to be responsible for driving growth has become the catch call in recent times, the fact is that for many years the advertising industry was famous for applying creativity to the process of making their client’s brands famous and successful.

Industry leaders like David Ogilvy (1911 – 1999) A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself” and Bill Bernbach (1911 – 1982) “The purpose of advertising is to sell. That is what the client is paying for and if that goal does not permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you are a phony and you ought to get out of the business.” regularly extolled the industry to focus on working to make their clients, their brands and their businesses successful.

In more recent times others such as John Hegarty (1944 – ) echoed those sentiments “The function of advertising is simply to promote and sustain competitive advantage for brands.” But if we go back even further to the previous century before the last Claude C Hopkins (1866 – 1932), a pioneer of advertising said Advertising is multiplied salesmanship. It may appeal to thousands while the salesman talks to one”.

This call today for marketing to drive business growth and the reported abandonment of the Chief Marketing Officers by many major brands for the Chief Growth Officer could simply be seen as a reaction of organisations who have lost faith in advertising and marketing.

So when did advertising forget its purpose?

While the Internet first took on a more recognised form in 1990 it was not until the dot.com boom, bubble and bust at the turn of the millennium where advertising embraced the Internet revolution with the rise of an ever increasing and continuing diversity of specialist agencies. At the same time media was decoupled from creative agencies and instead of clients having one agency partner they found themselves with a gaggle of agencies all competing for a share of their marketing budget.

Instead of the focus being on driving growth and sales, in this increasingly fragmented environment agencies were competing for their place of the roster and their share of spend. The pitch went from delivering value to selling the latest and hottest capabilities and features. In response the larger agencies tried building their diversified in-house offering and when this failed quickly changed to buying the specialist skills.

Once you lose focus on your purpose and reduce your offering to merely capabilities and features, how quick is it for you to be effectively commoditised as the commercial relationship is reduced to simply providing services at a cost? Cue the Global Financial Recession and in the face of economic contraction marketing budgets and spend with agencies contracted. But this was a prime opportunity for procurement to be able to competitively source these services at the lowest possible price.

But it is not all doom and gloom because just as marketers are looking to discover their brand purpose and build and deliver growth, there are agencies that have rediscovered the purpose of advertising and see the range of diversified services as simply the means of delivering the growth their clients need, want and desire.

Interestingly the three best examples of these agencies are the same ones acquired by Accenture over the past three years being Karmarama in the UK, The Monkeys in Australia and most recently Droga5. All three are highly successful agencies because their purpose is to make their clients famous and successful.

When will the rest of the industry rediscover their purpose?

This article was first published in The Drum on September 25, 2019

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