Ad|Vice: Peter Cullinane

Ex-Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide chief operating officer, STW director, Assignment Group co-founder, APN board member and dairy don Peter Cullinane offers up some hard-earned pearls of advertising wisdom on Harvey Norman, awards and women. 

Is Harvey Norman’s advertising really that bad? Or is its constant repetition just helping to create what your fellow agony uncle from the UK Jeremy Bullmore calls a “consensus of subjectivity?” What would you do differently?

Second part first. Jeremy Bullmore is, in my mind at least a demi-god. He ran JWT London when it was the thinking man’s Saatchi & Saatchi. Campaign describes him as “quite possibly the most admired man in advertising”. So anything he says is okay by me. But I’m not sure he intended his ‘consensus of subjectivity’ comment to embrace ads by Harvey Norman.

As to the ads, I have a sneaking admiration for them for two reasons. Firstly, they are a nightly reminder that television sells. If retailers like Harvey Norman, who measure success by the following day’s takings, continue to invest heavily in television, surely brand advertisers should sit up and take notice. The fact is television has lost its ‘cool’ factor and advertisers too often suffer from their own version of the ‘echo chamber’. There is a wonderful opportunity for advertisers courageous enough to embrace television whole-heartedly to leap frog the competition. The second reason is that while they are noisy and obtrusive, the ads do what they are meant to do. They put the advertiser at the top of the ‘go to’ list. As a sample of one, there’s no doubt that when it comes to consumer electronics, Harvey Norman is the first port of call. 

What would I do differently? Not too much. I would absolutely tone down the volume levels because having people shouting at me in my home has zero appeal. And good advertising is well-mannered. And I’d inject some personality into the advertising. Everyone prefers to deal with people they like.

A bit of a tip from The Good Suiting Guide: “New ideas have a spark of energy that quickly dissipates. Catch it, fan it and fuel it before it goes out. It’s your responsibility.”

Agencies spend thousands on awards. Assignment doesn’t, but you’re in a minority, so do you think they offer a good ROI for those that enter? Or is the quest for gongs across an ever-growing number of shows a pox on the house of advertising?

I’m very much in the ‘pox on the house of advertising’ school. It certainly wasn’t always that way. Most of my career was with an agency that made winning awards a veritable art form. So the switch to ‘no awards’ could have been difficult if it hadn’t been for a more compelling truth that goes to the heart of Assignment’s philosophy: ‘our role is to help clients create shareholder value.’ Awards distort the perception of value by making the primary currency of success accolades received from others in the industry. This creates the classic ‘echo chamber’ effect whereby the primary driver behind creative ideas is ‘what will our peers think and how will they judge this?’ rather than what will work best for our clients. Think of awards as the crack cocaine of advertising. And the only way to break the habit is to quit. Full stop. I realise that’s easier said than done and it’s easier when the acquisition of awards is no longer necessary as a demonstration of individual or collective worth. But in an industry that is forever earning less and paying less, encouraging awards is a relatively cheap way of keeping our best and brightest motivated. A better way is to pay them more. And the way to pay more is to charge more for the skills we have to build our clients’ businesses. Maybe there’s a half way house on this. Maybe a few selected awards are worth pursuing. But the unfettered chase for anything that glitters is fool’s gold.

Advertising—especially in the senior ranks—is still male-dominated here. Is the industry doing enough to ensure more women take on leadership roles? And is New Zealand lagging behind in this regard? 

Thin ice stuff this. Or walking on egg shells. From where I’m sitting right now, I’d say our industry was heavily female-dominated. And at a somewhat more scientific level, a study of all STW-controlled companies in both Australia and New Zealand shows the split as 51 percent female and 49 percent male. I’d suggest that’s typical. Advertising is still very much a service business and the essence of service is being able to provide what’s needed when it’s needed. So in that sense, it’s a chaotic business. People need to be ‘on call’ with a timetable driven by client needs rather than one’s own. That’s not the perfect recipe for the ideal work/life balance. It’s just not possible to plan things well enough in advance. And that’s often problematic for our best and brightest women who want to achieve a balance between work and family commitments. I think the industry is really aware of this tension and I sincerely believe we are as flexible as we can be in trying to accommodate the needs of our B&Bs. Why wouldn’t we be? It works for the likes of Nicky Bell and Liv Esterhazy. But I think many women elect to find a more structured environment (or one in which they are in control) when they are heading into the most senior ranks of our industry at the same time as the pressures of family are most pressing. To me, this is a work in progress. And we’re as likely to get it right as any other geography. No. More so.

  • This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing. 

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