If you haven’t heard of Cindy Gallop, then you need to set aside a few minutes and head to YouTube to watch her TED talk. Cindy is a former advertising creative director who, among other things, likes to blow shit up.
A couple of years back, Gallop decided she didn’t think much of the state of the porn industry (I’ll let her explain why; I couldn’t possibly do a better job, and many of the words I’d need to use don’t really belong in this magazine). Where a traditional advertising approach might be to re-examine the price, packaging and positioning, she blew the whole thing up and started from scratch. Then she and her team built makelovenotporn.com. (You might also want to set aside a few minutes to look at that one too, but unless your workplace has a very liberal internet use policy, wait until you’re at home and the kids are in bed.)
Ad agencies don’t do a lot of blowing up. Instead, we invest a lot of time and effort in thinking about how best to present things as they are. And quite a bit less of both thinking about how to change them.
We’ve become so good at it, the process even has a name: polishing turds.
Turd polishing is certainly lucrative, and can add a lot to an agency’s bottom line. But it’s unlikely to lead to a great long-term outcome for our clients. In the words of someone whose epigrams are clearly more memorable than his name, nothing kills a bad product faster than great advertising.
Real value, the kind we hint at when using words such as ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’ when we pitch for business, comes from questioning, challenging and being the trusted honest voice of dissent many big companies lack. I’ve always believed that one of our most important roles is to be customer advocates – asking ourselves and the client if the people they’re trying to sell to really want what it is they’re selling.
A while back, I received a brief from a big company. Like all briefs from big companies, it had probably been through five or six pairs of hands before it left the client, and two or three at the agency before it got to my team. The brief was for a product that I just couldn’t believe anyone would want to buy.
So we told the client that, they agreed, pulled the product and saved themselves a lot of money advertising it.
Instead of polishing the turd, they flushed it.
I made a lot of ads for that client, but that one I didn’t make sticks in my memory. By putting down the polishing cloth and questioning the point of the product, by providing an honest opinion despite all the signatures on the brief, by giving the client what they needed instead of what they asked for, we earned our pay that day.