Ad/Vice: Peter Cullinane

Ex-Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide chief operating officer, STW director, Assignment Group don and butter aficionado Peter Cullinane offers up some hard-earned pearls of advertising wisdom.  

Q: I’ve been in advertising for many years, but it seems to be a young person’s game these days. Do you think the industry has lost respect for its elders and instead reveres those who know how to work the shiny, new toys? 

I’ve never believed that you have to ‘earn respect.’ Instead, I think we should respect people until they lose the right to be respected. You’re unlikely to win on the digital savvy front but you should win hands down on understanding what makes consumers tick and how best to connect with them. Now, about those shiny new toys. The biggest thing to hit our industry since television is the arrival of digital. And it makes sense that digital natives are the ‘go to’ people for digital. That said, I think there is a real risk that the means is considered more important than the end. They are only of value when applied. I have always held the view that communications (and the ability to communicate persuasively) will become ever more important and are the core skill of our business. The tools we use are simply that. Bill Bernbach expressed this brilliantly more than 50 years ago when he said: ‘It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.’

Q: Why is advertising still seen as something of a laughing stock among the business community? How can that be changed? And is it a case of changing the industry, or doing a better job of showing the bean counters how powerful creativity can be for business? 

A: It didn’t use to be. Quite the contrary. In the days when brands were being built, advertising was an indispensible part of their success and commanded the attention of the chief executive. Its impact and value were unquestioned. Now in an age of fragmentation, cost cutting and sweating the assets, advertising has lost its place. Most of the blame lies at our own feet. As an industry, we’re poor learners and poor sellers of our own value. Few of us can articulate a strong case for advertising or arrive at a soundly based recommendation about how much to spend and where to spend it. Our vision has been narrowed to the execution itself, but even here there’s not a convincing body of evidence or even shared knowledge about what works and why. Of course, the usual excuse is that advertising requires originality and by definition what has gone before will not work in the future. While that’s true of specific executions, it is not true of the role advertising should play in the overall business mix. And until we can talk with as much authority as the ‘bean counters’ etc., we don’t deserve to be taken seriously. It’s all about facts and figures, because knowledge is power. To work in advertising means we have a privileged insight into a vast range of business problems and ways to successfully tackle them. That knowledge should be worth gold to chief executives and top management seeking new ways to solve new issues. And we need to get real. We need to know what it feels like to ‘write the cheque’ because we’re too often rightly accused of being all care and no responsibility. We need to think first about the business problem that needs to be solved before rushing to an ad solution. We need to use that knowledge to regain (or retain) a seat at the table. 

Q: What’s the best way of dealing with a turkey—and making sure the client sticks with you afterwards?  

A: Amnesia has its benefits. I do remember one campaign we created for Tegel that used animation and featured an Elvis Presley track ‘Love me tender.’ Roger MacDonnell described it as a dead man singing about a dead bird. It was, excuse the pun, a turkey. One of the keys to great food advertising is that the work should make you want to eat the television. If it’s not appetising, it won’t work. Another was for Holden, in which we mailed households a key and offered a free car to whoever was able to unlock the car. It had a huge response but unfortunately as the day wore on, the tumblers in the locks became inactivated, so by the end of the day, hundreds of keys were unlocking the cars. Disaster!

Certainly some campaigns work better than others. To me, there is not really much of an excuse for a campaign that doesn’t work. There’s no reason for failure if you do the homework and execute well. If, however, despite all the best intentions and planning, things go pear shaped, the best you can do is front up to the issue and provide a way out and a new way forward. Clients rely on us to give them work that works. If it doesn’t, we owe it to them to solve the problem and the sooner it’s solved the better. That said, failure is a bruising issue and my guess is that any agency that has seriously dropped the ball is unlikely to retain the client long term. Best to start looking for a replacement! 

A bit of a tip from the Good Suiting Guide: ‘Keep sharing your knowledge. Make us collectively smarter. Document it, so that it can be used again and again.’ 
  • Got a question for Peter? Email it to [email protected] with ‘Advice’ in the subject line. 
  • This column originally appeared in the July/August edition of NZ Marketing.

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