Ad/Vice: Peter Cullinane

Ex-Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide chief operating officer, STW director, Assignment Group co-founder, NZME board member and Lewis Road dairy don Peter Cullinane offers up some hard-earned pearls of advertising wisdom on ideas, multi-culturalism and chocolate milk.

The focus on technology, efficiency and targeting in the world of marketing seems to be chipping away at the importance of the creative idea that’s required at the start of the process. How do you convince clients that’s the important bit and that digital is just a delivery mechanism?  

By chipping away at clients. The idea will always be the important part that informs the rest. But a splendid idea is only as good as its ability to reach and affect people. In a digital age, the way we decipher messages is inseparable from the medium by which we receive them. It’s been a long time since I skim read Marshall McLuhan but he was right on the money when he said the medium is the message. My sense of things at the moment is that too often clients automatically start at the delivery end, the medium, before thinking about the message and aren’t necessarily that interested in the strength of the idea itself to motivate people. But that’s the wrong approach. It’s an approach that years ago saw media and creativity separated, which hollowed out the creative power of agencies. It’s best always to think about ideas in the context of how people will see them. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to mention television, radio or print as though they are somehow irrelevant in today’s market anymore than we should overly focus on digital. A great idea will thrive in any place it’s planted.

Given the rapidly changing cultural make-up of New Zealand, is the lack of ethnic diversity in agencies a weakness? And are marketers doing enough to try and understand these customers? 

I really can’t speak for agencies in general but I would hazard a guess and say we could do more and should do more. Not that we need to flagellate ourselves. At my old agency in New York, the only African Americans were in the mailroom. It seems hard to believe but it’s true. The shadow of the Mad Men is a long one! Growing up in agencies in New Zealand, I’m not aware of any conscious decision or bias about who to employ. The problem has always been to find the talent to begin with. Given the growth in Maori, Pacifica and Asian populations, it clearly makes enormous sense to find talented people from these backgrounds because they will have a natural affinity with the markets who are becoming ever more important. That said, the number of tertiary establishments that are teaching advertising and design means the gene pool must be growing to meet that need.
As to whether clients and agencies are doing enough to understand these markets is a question that can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. Unquestionably they should because beyond their economic importance the more fundamental issue of respect is at stake.
The better we can address our customers as individuals rather than as a mass the more persuasive we can be and the better we can tailor our offerings to the customers needs.
I find the prospect of an ever more diverse New Zealand a truly exciting one. And the more things change the more they stay the same. I can even remember a wonderful black and white Greggs instant coffee commercial that celebrated our diversity when we were still coming to grips with being a bi-cultural let alone multi-cultural country.
Every so often, advertising really can help lead the way.

It’s tough to make a buck in advertising these days and the competition is coming from a range of different angles. So should all agencies create their own chocolate milk?

Advertising people are the most commercially imaginative people around. Of course they should be creating products. There is a misunderstanding deep down in our psyche that only clients know how to bring products to market and our role is limited to communicating their benefits. The overarching lesson for me is that the process of bringing a product to market doesn’t have to begin with making it. Begin instead with the area we’re naturally good at: understanding the consumer and what they want. Not in a bland, clinical and over-researched manner, but viscerally. We’ve got great instincts that we should back more often. And we should be endlessly grateful for social media. It might be eating our advertising lunch but it’s also opening the door to a brave new world where advertising agencies can get back to doing what they did in their heyday, only now they can do it for products and services they own. It will happen and the sooner the better. Just don’t try chocolate milk. That market’s taken!

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