Why Is Experience So Undervalued In Advertising?

Why Is Experience So Undervalued In Advertising?

In this guest post, adland veteran Robert Strohfeldt asks why the industry continues to ignore the expertise of its older – and often more wiser – employees…

Why is experience so undervalued in advertising? This issue was highlighted recently when the head of WPP said proudly the average age of employees was under 30.

Neither of these are pleasant scenarios:

  • You, or a loved one, requires a highly complex operation. (Surgery today is unarguably more “high tech” than advertising). Assuming both have high levels of competency, for their time practicing, do you want the 30- year- old or the 50 -year- old surgeon to perform the operation?
  • In a modern, high tech passenger plane and everything goes to hell in a hand cart. Something highly improbable, such as a flock of geese flying into your path, are sucked into the engines and both shut down. Added to this you have bugger all height (a technical term) to play with. Do you want the 30 -year -old or the 50-year-old pilot in charge? Of course, probably everyone knows about Sully landing his plane on the Hudson in this circumstance. The only pilot to have successfully landed a large passenger jet on water. He stated firmly, it took all his 30 plus years of flying experience to get them down safely.

Surgeons and pilots are both in high tech careers and must undergo continuous training until they retire. This is knowledge stacked on top of existing knowledge and experience.

I often hear the youth skew in advertising is due to familiarity with new/online/social media. By that reckoning, some of the best TV creatives should have come from the large number of mates in Caloundra (Qld. Sunshine Coast). They dropped out of, or finished school and then spent their days unemployed on the couch watching hours of TV, surfing mostly in the early morning and late afternoon when the wind didn’t “blow out” the surf.

There is a push for marketers to be “formally trained” –a clear implication of the need for people who want a career in marketing to study it at university.  When I started university in 1978, there was only one university in Australia which offered any marketing subjects – they were a relatively small part of a Bachelor of Commerce at UNSW. (Not that a career in advertising ever entered my mind then. I wanted to be a Marine Biologist).

In 1983 I made the jump to an advertising agency – my boss, who recruited me, watched me run a series of focus groups for Nestle. There was no such thing as “planners” in Australian agencies in 1983. He was an Engineer with an MBA who thought “Maybe having a market researcher in an advertising agency could be useful?”. Having switched majors to mathematics (no jobs for Marine Biologists in the late 70s), my friends would take the piss – “What the f…. is a mathematician doing in an advertising agency?”. How times change.

With no formal marketing degrees available, I occasionally (rarely) ran into someone who had done a couple of marketing subjects in a Bachelor of Commerce. So, 99 per cent plus of the clients had no formal marketing training.

Marketing has become far more complex and sophisticated over the past 40 years, though one thing is certain. The basics don’t change. The language has become more technical – don’t say advertising must “brand the shit out of it”, rather we use terms such a “distinctiveness, brand cues and assets”.

Media was, prior to the “digital era” relatively simple. There was not a large amount of choice. An advertiser could road block the Sunday night movies on 9, 7 and 10 – run their TVC on all three stations at a similarly timed ad break and 80 per cent plus of all households in the country would see it in just one viewing. (Excluding those who didn’t use the ad break to duck out for a leak or pour a drink. So, a couple of ads were needed).

The fragmentation of media landscape now is such that if the brand/product is mass market, “integration” is not a clever ploy, rather a mandatory. And it is not only new digital mediums popping up. It seems that any place (saw an ad on the back of a toilet cubicle door the other night) which can have advertising put on it, has done so.

No matter how highly rated the university and course, the importance of the initial job is even bigger than the academic side. It is often said “nothing beats experience”. This should be “nothing beats quality, relevant experience”.

A highly regarded marketing academic (actually, he is more than that, as he does probably more consulting than teaching now), has written several times that “formal” marketing qualifications are now mandatory. If your title is “Professor”, then teaching is/has been a big part of your life and I cannot disagree with him. Though marketing is still, like most sales related areas, highly practical.

It will become rarer in future, there are still outstanding marketers without qualifications who have been fortunate to have worked with not just great marketers, but also great mentors.

What is not mentioned in this drive for more formal qualifications, is no matter how good the university and how many high distinctions you achieved, if you work for idiots, particularly early in your career, then the qualifications will account for naught. You would have been better going from your senior school year, skipping university, and working for a marketing department that is prepared to train you.

Advertising agencies used to work like that many years ago. They only accepted a small number of the brightest young things (and that is not always measured wholly on academic achievements), starting them in dispatch (this was prior to digital, when “material” was a bromide or a dub and dispatch departments were huge). It was an extremely well structured “cadetship”, working in every department over 2 years.

At completing the two years, nearly all joined the department which they felt best suited them – Account Service, Creative, Media (occasionally print or electronic production). Some of the biggest industry “stars” of past eras came through this system. (There were no relevant tertiary courses at the time). Graduates were also employed, but more for the fact they had been able to attain degree, rather then what the degree was in.

Not down- playing the importance of quality marketing qualifications, on their own they are near worthless. In 1993, I attended a conference in Melbourne and met Professor John Rossiter. A name many would not know today, though Rossiter/Percy textbooks were staples in university marketing courses. Marketing academics were far lower key, though not necessarily any less effective, compared to today where they become “brands” themselves.

Some, I think, overstep the mark, becoming highly opinionated in areas that are probably not their forte. Have seen quite a few of them, who as creative directors, make very good marketing academics. (Another topic, Marketers today spend far more time on Promotion, than the other three Ps. I think from when the first ad hit a newspaper, people expressed opinions. Unlike the Law or Accounting, can’t get locked up for the wrong advice on advertising).

This chance meeting started a long-term relationship with the academic world. John asked me to be a guest lecturer to his MBA students at the AGSM. (Australian Graduate School of Management). The title of my first lecture was “The Chairman’s Wife Doesn’t Like Red” – the difference between the study of and practice of marketing.

John knew his students would very quickly discover this fact once in the workforce and they should be prepared for it, rather than be hit with the confusion – “this is not how we were taught”.

For all the importance of a solid academic marketing education, it is only the start. And I cannot stress enough the importance of a good mentor. Someone with lengthy and quality experience, who is genuinely interested in your progression.

And what about common sense? The focus on data today is all consuming and “common sense” is only a fall back, used by people who did not understand data.

In this fragmented media market, the possibilities are so immense no one with a calculator could hope to develop the “optimal schedule” (Of course, computer modelling was done long before digital came on the scene).

Online media has been very successful in its ability to micro-target. A TV ad, with large audience numbers is often called wasteful – many of those reached, assuming they watch the ad and don’t nip out for a quick leak, are not in the target.

Unless a highly specialised product or service, the potential target is probably much broader than you may first think. Mo’s, one half of the legendary MoJo was asked, “who is the target market for Tooheys Draught?”

(The “How do You Feel” campaign saw Toohey’s Draught rise from around six per cent to 47 per cent of the packaged beer market, in a little over two years. There was no doubt the advertising worked.

Instead of “Men 25 to 44 years, mid-income, not tertiary educated, heavily skewed to trades. conscious of presenting a “no frills” image blah, blah, blah” Mo replied:

“Anyone over 18 with a mouth”.

This was back in the 1980’s when regional beers ruled i.e. Queenslanders drank XXXX, NSW Tooths, Resches, Tooheys. Victorians Fosters and VB etc. With close to 1 in 2 NSW take away beer drinkers choosing Tooheys Draught, he was spot on.

That campaign was not researched – it was based on “common sense”, which stemmed from experience. (Creativity has more to do with empathy than it does data).

Nearly all of us would have asked a person, in an area where we have little experience – “How did you know that?”

“Common sense.”

Data has become all pervasive – follow the data, the data shows the way. Many years in research has taught me that if the conclusions drawn from the data (or research), contradict what the sales’ people., the people who have had many years’ experience dealing daily with the consumers, (the front line operators) I go back and check the data/research.

Common sense is not that common.

It comes from experience. I can’t resist one example where the desire for creativity has been put above all else.

I have never been a fan of the Budget direct TV ads and the latest in what must have been an expensive series highlights where common sense has been set aside in the name of creativity. Something I found “interesting” when I first came into advertising. The difference between bullshit and hyperbole. Tell a lie and big trouble awaits. But tell a lie so big, no one could possibly believe, and it is hyperbole, which is perfectly legal.

  • The neighbour’s dog runs inside your house, out of the blue, carrying a Star Wars lightsabre chased by 2 bumbling policemen. (Find these light sabres laying around everywhere these days)
  • The dog runs around inside the house, with the lightsabre in its mouth, unleashing carnage. (The bumbling police continue to try and catch the little dog. Keystone Cops.)
  • The dog runs closely past a light/lamp post and the lightsabre cuts it down. Oh my.
  • The lamp/light post falls and in doing so takes out the ladies front room.
  • “Will my insurance cover this?” asks the distressed home- owner. Our cool detective says, “it doesn’t appear so”, somehow looking at the charred remains of the homeowners insurance policy that has suddenly appeared in his hands. “But if you were with Budget Direct you would have had a place to stay for 12 months”, says the detective’s assistant.
  • And the hero detective gives the little dog a command and it drops the lightsabre which then turns off. The homeowner is ashen faced, “what will I do”, you can see her “thinking/lamenting” she is not with Budget Direct.

I am sure the response is the “TVC has worked well” – it should if the other 3 Ps are all well covered (Product, Price & Distribution). Awareness is strongly correlated to sales/leads. The Meerkat TVCs built a large following, but the branding was poor. Notice has this has been addressed since the campaign first started. People now know who the brand is.

Budget Direct could have easily achieved the same, if not even better, result without wasting so much money on the various creative executions. Why do I think this?

Just a tad of common sense would tell the distressed homeowner, it is not her problem, it is not her dog. If anyone needed decent insurance, it would be the dog’s owner from next door. (Or experience – keep your neighbour’s dog away from Star Wars lightsabres).





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Robert Strohfeldt

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