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Seven Dysfunctional Ways Ad Agencies Learn the Wrong Lessons

Posted by Doug Garnett September - 11 - 2013 - Wednesday

In my last post I wrote about agency feedback loops – how important they are and the three tiers of feedback that drive the best improvement. (Link here.)

Now it’s time for the fun stuff – the agency dysfunctions that come from poor feedback loops – starting with seven strange abnormalities that agencies rely on to decide what makes up good work.

Seven Dysfunctional Feedback Loops.

1. The “Aren’t We Revolutionaries?” Loop. One thread of creative education teaches that edginess and destruction are the hallmarks of creative genius. Yup. It’s crazy. But in this feedback loop the creative team feels good about it’s work as long as that work is offensive. Or edgy. Or impossible to understand. With a certain beautiful irony, this leads creative teams to consider negative feedback itself to be the goal. Strange behavior.

2. The “Agency Love” Loop. Here the work that is rewarded is that which is loved most by agency management or agency colleagues (often loved because the style brings that agency more work). Powerful stuff – the accolades of close colleagues…except this has nothing to do with actual market impact. (I should note that this feedback type starts early. It’s exactly the intentional training supplied at portfolio schools…and has nothing to do with advertising impact. A good CD friend of mine refuses to hire portfolio school grads because they’ve never faced true feedback on their work.)

3. The “Creative Award” Loop. Some agencies use award shows to drive feedback. Sadly history shows that awards don’t reflect effectiveness – even those that claim to be all about effectiveness (see post on Old Spice’s Effie here).

4. The “Portfolio” Loop (aka the “My Next Position” loop). This feedback loop leads creative teams to believe that the work that builds their portfolio is also the “best work”. Of course it isn’t true. But this idea is insidious – covertly leading agencies to opt for approaches based on it’s portfolio quality. Even worse, this work often justified with tortured arguments that claim it to be effective. (“The focus group participants said they’d change the channel after 2 seconds and that proves that we’re getting through to them!”)

5. The “Client Love” Loop. In these agencies…if the client loves the work it must be good. End of story. And, let’s not measure anything…please.

6. The “Client CEO Neighbor” Loop. This may be my favorite. If the client CEO’s neighbor or wife likes the campaign, then it must be good. Not that they’d ever consider buying the product. But it’s a kind of Sallie Field “You like me!” moment.

7. The “Response Worship” Loop. This one’s more subtle because it takes a good idea and makes it bad by taking it to the extreme. And it’s running rampant in digital media right now with “click worship”. Immediate responses (clicks, phone calls, web site visits, direct sales, etc…) reveal a very important part of advertising impact – just not the whole story. Yet response is relatively easy to measure and other hard data isn’t, so too many agencies and clients obsess about only this one dimension of impact. Consider DRTV (direct response television). Today over 90% of sales driven by DRTV come from brick & mortar stores. But traditional DRTVers make it all about response. The result? They kill campaigns that should run and run campaigns they should kill.

The Impact of Feedback Dysfunction

These dysfunctions aren’t benign. They’ve created an ad business where audience style enjoyment of work has become more important than actual communication – communicating meaningful things to consumers so they buy more product. This dysfunction is now entrenched in portfolio schools and J-school ad programs around the world – where students aren’t taught advertising as an endeavor with a business impact but as an audience based mass media entertainment.

Still, for the perceptive agencies, there is a better way. Take the time to create a feedback loop that is primarily objective. And create one where the necessarily subjective input is identified for what it is. And you’ll be surprised. Because you’ll start driving economic results that are far more powerful than merely pleasing an audience.

Copyright 2013 – Doug Garnett – All Right Reserved


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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