What’s turning Aussie marketers soft?

The nanny state, creative castration and procurement are making Australian marketing more dull and conservative, argues Richard Woods.

Fifteen years ago, when I first entered the world of marketing, I was bedazzled by the creative genius and ballsy campaigns that our advertising and marketing leaders put on TV, in press and on pack. But something’s changed… more conservative, more vanilla campaigns are slipping through the net and it’s rare to see an idea made from blood, sweat and beers these days.

But why? What’s changed?



In London, where I started my career, everyone seemed to want to make a difference. They wanted to break the mould and make a name for themselves.

Those agencies (and clients) that fearlessly challenged the obstacles and barriers were rewarded with increased sales, priceless PR and a trophy cabinet full of awards for their work.

So, has this passion gone?

No. I strongly believe that the advertising and marketing professionals are no less passionate than they were back then… they are just a little bit beaten up.

They’ve been worn down up by a variety of influences, each one slowly chipping away at the drive and energy required to make that difference.

What is influencing the change?

Let’s start with the nanny state we now live in. Firstly, jay-walking… people are getting fined $67 for crossing the street. I mean, really? Surely the pedestrian would learn more from getting hit by a bus than a petty fine. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is being criminalised in Australia!

Secondly, whilst its good that Australia is at the forefront of the global anti-smoking movement, when do we say enough is enough? Bus shelter ads have covered metropolitan districts this week saying that you can’t smoke within 10 metres of the bus stop (otherwise you’ll face another fine)! Bus shelters are outside in the open and these non-smoking bus shelters are also next to a busy road with carbon monoxide at its peak, so they can’t be making the rule based on a health risk (can they)?

This nanny state is also impacting the creativity and freedom of our marketers.

The lawyers, the bean counters, those in HR protecting the employee and employer and the teams in charge of corporate responsibility are forcing us to live in fear. Our clients and customers are asking us to think bigger and act bolder but then tie one hand behind our backs. We are required to work to the lowest common denominator; we can’t risk a 16-year-old schoolgirl complaining about an ad or promotion on Facebook; we fear over-spending our marketing budgets and we’re told not to cannibalise a retailer’s sales of a different product albeit in a different category!

Are we being creatively castrated?

No one appears willing to make a decision, sign off an idea or have a go at something truly different. Brand Managers used to approve an agency’s campaign and then it would go to market. Easy as that.

More recently, an agency presents a great idea that wins a pitch. The agency is filled with high fives and ‘woop woops’ and campaign ideas start flowing along with the champagne. But there are now so many voices around the table, so many commercial considerations and tales of caution to be heard that somewhere between first artwork and final client sign-off the campaign has had all its edginess, originality and spark knocked out of it.

It’s getting tougher to retain the integrity of our ideas these days.

The forecast?

It’s not just the nanny state; I also blame the amazing Australian weather.

Sydney’s just had the most hours of sunshine and hottest May temperatures on record so why would anyone choose to stay in the unnaturally lit office, night after night in search of that elusive spark? It’s easy to see why us marketers want to head to the pub for a few coldies or stroll along the beach with our families or friends instead. After all, we’re only contracted to work until 5 or 5.30, so why should we miss out on everything else this country has to offer?

The final two forces… technology and budgets

Technology both helps and hinders our ability to get a campaign to market. We can get the final cut of an ad to the TV station later and later and the high res art files sent for outdoor at the 11th working to the same deadlines as before, but we aren’t. It’s not often that a client, customer or even manager gives the luxury of weeks to respond to a brief or proposal.

In my specialist area, Promotional Marketing, things are a little slower to adapt but the expectation is that we should be as fast as the other Comms channels.

We still need legals drafted by lawyers, rely on state authorities to approve projects, print labels onto bottles (and get them through supply channels and into store) and draft supplier contracts where necessary. One of the by-products of the increased timing pressures is that everyone uses email as the main form of communication to cover the agency and employee’s arse to mitigate the fear of blame!

Unfortunately, reliance on email severely waters down rapport and trust with clients and suppliers alike, which, in turn, slows things down once again!

And then there are the bean counters.

In addition, there is an ever-increasing pressure to satisfy the shareholders. Gone are the days that they would be happy with the promise of profit growth – they want it now. They demand a long-term promise, a medium term expectation and a short term, immediate cash return.

And then there’s the P Team… yes, you’ve guessed it, Procurement. They didn’t used to be involved in marketing at all – they were there to make sure that the steel that Holden was buying was good quality at a competitive price and that McDonalds were buying good value cows. But now, the procurement team has become one of the Key Decision Makers for agency/supplier selection and for the ideas that progress to development. Whilst I have enormous respect for these guys, picking the ‘creative genius and ballsy campaigns’ isn’t really their area of speciality.

So, does all that mean that we should all pack up and go home?

No, certainly not. Aussies are made of stronger stuff than that… it’s a nation with a unique attitude; a problem becomes a challenge and a challenge becomes an opportunity. What a fantastic outlook on both life and business.

• The legal landscape can and should be challenged to ensure we stay current.

• If someone passionately believes that their idea will make a difference to solve a problem, then customers and managers should be pushed (hard) to see it through.

• Budgets must work harder to drive sales – regardless of which area of advertising or marketing you’re in.

• And finally, if agencies, clients and customers employ smart business partners and place trust in them, the marketer will avoid becoming soft and we’ll soon see inspiring, fantastic and effective campaigns once again.

Richard Woods is managing director at VCG Promo Risk Australia



  1. Hugo
    12 Jun 14
    1:30 pm

  2. I’d add another factor.

    One man’s “bold” is another man’s obnoxious.

    An often understanded (for the obvious reasons) problem facing marketing and brands themselves is consumer disengagement from advertising. The kids have picked up ad-blocker on their browsers and it’s harder to get to their disposable income becuase of this – and now they are helping install it on their parent’s browsers too – and teaching them how to watch their TV shows online without those pesky ads/advertorials and “integrated campaigns”.

    Being risk averse is a concern, but its an irrational reponse to the fact that conusmers are harder to reach – which is a direct response to marketing that crossed the line from bold/rique to obnoxious.

  3. Agree
    12 Jun 14
    1:45 pm

  4. Couldn’t agree more.

    Returning from a European role in 2012, it was clear that Australian marketers on both the client and agency sides are terrified of big companies not liking their ideas – particularly those in FMCG.

    It’s the lack of ideas, excitement and confidence that is killing Australian retail… and marketing for that matter.

  5. Ingmar
    12 Jun 14
    2:10 pm

  6. You hit the nail on the head (or is that too violent a metaphor these days?).

    I think another problem along with all this is the number of wannabe screenwriters and film makers who seem to be creating ‘pretty’ and ‘filmic’ commercials for their film school reels.

    No proposition, no product story, no brand presence, no cause for viewer involvement. And these chuckleheads seem to be supported by no-hopers on the client side who have no idea either.

    On occasions when I’ve been a bit lax hitting the mute button I see (not actively look at) stuff for which I can’t picture the meeting at which the ‘concept’ was approved.

  7. TH
    12 Jun 14
    2:28 pm

  8. So let me get this straight, you think the Australian advertising industry is going soft because you can’t do whatever you want any more; because the society in which you operate has set limits and standards around what they are willing to put up with; because the clients are expecting a return on their investment; and something irrelevant about where you can have a cigarette?

    Well since you put it that way, you have my unending sympathy, and I sincerely hope that Australia becomes more like England in the 1980’s as soon as possible. Maggie T for PM!

  9. Just saying...
    12 Jun 14
    2:36 pm

  10. I agree with Ingmar, too many times have I watched a TVC and really struggled to imagine what the meeting must have been like where the client said “that’s perfect, it’s exactly the creative resposne we need…”

  11. fraser
    12 Jun 14
    2:39 pm

  12. Whats soft is complaining about how hard things are these days and they are not what they used to be.

    Man Up – in marketing there are always challenges and barriers, either work out away to work with them and overcome them or move on.

  13. Andrew
    12 Jun 14
    2:56 pm

  14. Richard

    I agree but would like to contribute to your list of contributing circumstances that has made marketing , particularly in business services, which wasn’t exciting to start with, completely lame and effectively useless

    Remember the days when this saying was common and got a laugh. “i know half of my marketing budget works I just don’t know which half.”

    Now as a result of cheap edm marketing and very clever(SiC) digital marketing teams the saying is now ” I know which 2 % of my marketing is working so im going to focus exclusively on that!

    The result of all this focus on measurable results in marketing and “being at the executive table” to be able to demonstrate the effect of your marketing investment is that the bean counters have won. They now have the data that says only 2 % of your marketing budget has clear and measurable sales outcomes. So what do you think the marketing budgets look like now. About 2 % of what they were and only on EDMs. All of the creative brilliance has been drained from B to B marketing.

    Be careful what you wish for!

  15. Richard Woods
    12 Jun 14
    3:43 pm

  16. @ Fraser – I am simply pointing out that times are tougher to get a genius idea to market. Therefore we now have the opportunity to overcome those challenges and to deliver big, smart, industry evolving campaigns to market (more so than we did before)! So let’s get on with it and grow some balls!…. And I took your advice to ‘Man Up’… I had four cans of Solo, three Four n’ Twenty’s and a six pack of VB and am ready to take on the world!

  17. Karen Burdett
    12 Jun 14
    11:09 pm

  18. Soooo agree with your comments and its refreshing to hear that creatives understand the challenges for marketers to do something big, different – only to be hamstrung by all the components you mention. After recently working with an amazing bunch of creatives that had developed a great idea that had all winning elements – it was so sad to see the nucleus of the great idea broken down – piece by vanilla flavoured piece -by the 79 decision makers, over zealous procurement team and condensed time frames. This only breeds mediocrity in the long run- and what a shame…

  19. lee
    13 Jun 14
    10:39 pm

  20. The reason there is little creativity in mainstream marketing is because of all the Monopolies and Oligopolies in Australia. In almost every industry there are just a couple of big players who know that as long as they continue using to their dominance wisely, and don’t rock the boat too much, their success is almost guaranteed. Why would Coles ever risk doing something a bit controversial? Those clients that fearlessly challenge the obstacles are few and far between in Australia and underfunded too.
    In London you are very much focused on the consumer and what they want because there is lots of real competition. In my experience it’s much more about focusing on the client here and that client is usually happy just to keep things ticking along. It’s nothing to do with a nanny state. I’ve worked in counties where there is a lot less nannying than Australia and it doesn’t make them everyone more creative.
    The most creative things happening in Australia are all about breaking the Monopolies. Uber, Airbnb and ideas like Hackathons and Open Sourcing are where the creativity lies, not coming up with a cleaver brand campaign to sell as new shampoo. If you want more creativity in you life go and work for the underdogs and those companies who are trying to shake things up, not just preserve the Status Quo. [get it “Status Quo!”}

  21. Stephen
    17 Jun 14
    6:59 am

  22. Great observation – like any good merchant navy ploughing the seas, we need a couple of pirates to work outside the system. Make your own treasure on a $2000 camera and PC, get it out there through social media shares, get the numbers that even blind marketers can’t deny and only work for the few small/mid sized companies with a single decision maker with balls who wants to kick the big boys from behind. A great simple idea can be executed with a tiny team – lokk at http://youtu.be/nnsSUqgkDwU for inspiration.

  23. David
    23 Jun 14
    6:18 pm

  24. I’d go along with all of that and am doing my bit to make a difference.