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



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