When is the right time to apply the Golden Rule in marketing?

This is the first in a series of one minute videos that address one of the many complex challenges facing marketing, media and advertising today. The Golden Minute series is an attempt to prove Albert Einstein right when he said “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple”.

But he also said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. So we will leave it for you to judge. Please let us know here if there is a topic you would like us to cover in a Golden Minute.


The first time I wrote about the Golden Rule was five years ago, back in 2012 in an article on media kick-backs and rebates. I first heard about The Golden Rule back when I was Creative Director at JWT and was asked to judge the Times Advertising Awards for Chinese Language Advertising in Taiwan.

It was there that one of the other judges was joking about the “Golden Rule” being an ancient Chinese philosophy. He said it was even older than Confucius. The Golden Rule being that “the man with the gold made the rules”. It resonated that an ancient, traditionally feudal society would believe that money and power define the rules, unlike a modern democracy, where the people have the power to make the rules, right?

It was a concept that stayed with me and which I have applied particularly to media and advertising in recent years. I have since found out it appears to be a much more recent saying attributed to everyone from actor Tyler Perry to the cartoon strip the Wizard of Id by cartoonists Brant Parker and Johnny Hart.

The Golden Rule in Agency Rosters

For more than ten years, a common complaint we have addressed from our marketer clients is “Why can’t our agencies just work together?”. At the end of last year the CMO at Australia’s largest telco was complaining that media and creative agencies don’t talk anymore. The difference being that Joe Pollard, who has had a career as a marketer and agency side, understands the importance of the Golden Rule when she goes on to says “its something that I absolutely enforce now I am back on client side”.

But we have worked with clients who develop a village of agencies model only to find that they spend most of their time and effort managing the village. Invariably the problem is there were no rules of engagement or definitions of roles and responsibilities or even an articulation of outcomes.

Imagine if you had a real village of people with no rules, expecting that they would make up the rules themselves. I ask you, have you read, or watched, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies? Anarchy.

The problem is that for agencies to work productively together, in fact for any teams to work productively together, they need rules of engagement, roles and responsibilities, alignment to deliverables and outcomes and a framework within which to operate. And who is responsible for creating this?

Well someone has to do it, and the person with the most to lose is the person who is responsible for the village or roster. The man with the gold makes the rules or at least is willing to pay someone to make the rules and create the roster framework for them.

Is the fact, as I posed four years ago, that marketers have forgotten the Golden Rule for agency performance?

The Golden Rule in Media Transparency

In the past five years the biggest issue requiring the application of the Golden Rule is media transparency and media value. Prior to April 2012 we had been hearing rumours that media agencies were finding ways to make up for the reduction in their agency fees. But when this report in the trade media AdNews laid the blame with the agencies we suggested that they were simply playing by the rules laid down by the advertisers and their procurement teams to drive media costs down.

The whole sordid media train-wreck with the kick-backs, rebates, ad fraud issue can be reviewed here. But interestingly it was not until early this year that a global marketer stood up and laid down the rules to their media agencies and the digital media supply chain. That marketer is Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer at P&G and Chair of the ANA. Its is a great example of how to apply the Golden Rule and six months on he is reporting that they are 50% of the way to achieving the transparency transformation he demanded.

A year after the release of the ANA K2 Report into Media Transparency it is reported that only about half the ANA members have started taking the appropriate steps to address the issues and implement the recommendations of the report and we believe that figure is even lower outside of the USA. The lack of action means that potentially many advertisers are still seeing a significant percentage of their media spend wasted.

Why is there not a greater level of attention to making the changes required?

Earlier this year, on the back of the announcement from P&G, we encouraged marketers to follow P&G’s lead and apply the Golden Rule to their media arrangements.  Hopefully more will.

Applying the Golden Rule

The trouble with applying the Golden Rule is that it works both ways. If you don’t like the way the game is being played, simply change the rules. But when you change the rules, as Marc Pritchard at P&G has done, you have to be prepared and take the responsibility for the outcome. It could be that the game gets worse, or there are unexpected and unforeseen consequences from the rule change. Of course then you simply get to change the rules again.

That is the great thing about the Golden Rule, as long as you have the gold you get to keep making the rules. Of course there will come a day when you don’t have the gold and the greatest pity will be that you didn’t change the rules to optimise the performance or your agencies, your roster and your marketing. Because then it is too late. But if you want advice on ways of changing the rules, we can definitely help  you with that too.

Golden Minute Video Transcription

Frustrated? Tired? Trouble with your agencies?

Can’t get them to work together?

Then you need to apply the Golden Rule.

What’s the Golden Rule?

I will tell you.

The man with the gold makes the rules.

So do you own your own budget?

Do you control the budget you spend with the agencies?

Then you are the man (or woman) with the gold.

So if you don’t like the way the game is being played

Then it is time to make some new rules.

If you don’t have the gold then you need to find out who does.

But beware.

When you make the rules you have to be prepared for how the game will get played.

We’ve been umpiring these games for more than 15 years

So if you want some hints on the best rules to make, just ask.

Read more on the ways we can help you make or change the rules to optimise your agency and agency rosters here or learn how to make your media more transparent and improve value and performance here