Looking beyond the wood for the trees

Wood for the trees

David Ogilvy once remarked that, in the course of his working life there was only one big idea he had failed to sell.

The prospective client was a large paper company, and it had asked the Ogilvy agency in New York to produce a corporate advertising campaign.

David had the Scotsman’s visceral horror of self-indulgence, and most likely despised the kind of chest-beating, self-congratulatory advertising which this particular client might have bought in a heartbeat. He went back with an altogether different idea. The company, he observed, owned a million acres or so of forestry in the United States; he recommended it should make over a small fraction of this acreage for public use, as parkland and recreation areas for the permanent enjoyment of the American public. That, he remarked, would lastingly raise the reputation and fame of the company more effectively than anything in print. Rather than attaching its brand to dead trees, the company could attach its name to living ones.

To David’s lasting regret, the client went with another agency, who produced a conventional campaign. Which, I think it’s fair to say, no-one remembers.

Now for all I know there may have been perfectly good reasons for rejecting David’s idea. Perhaps it would have been a fire risk. Or possibly all their finest trees were located somewhere inaccessible like northern Wisconsin where, to the few local inhabitants, being able to look at foliage did not offer much in the way of novelty. Advertising people are pre-programmed to overlook practical problems of this kind - which is why we are always annoying, and sometimes valuable.

But, all the same, I can see why David mourned his lost idea. Actions often do speak louder than words, and this might have been a far more eloquent statement of the company’s character than three-hundred odd words of body-copy, even if written by David himself. It was also a natural progression of his advertising philosophy that marketing was not a zero sum game, or something waged against the public, but should form a mutually beneficial, respectful exchange between advertiser and consumer. (David even disliked outdoor advertising, in part because he thought it broke the implicit rule that advertising should fund content people chose to see).

But it does not surprise me at all that he failed to sell this idea, even if it would have been practical, successful and easy to implement. You see, I have an observation from the past 30 years - a rule I might call Sutherland’s Law were that not already the title of a mid-1970s television series starring Iain Cuthbertson. In its shortest form, it’s expressed as follows. Any idea whose execution requires someone in marketing to talk to someone outside marketing is 95% less likely to see the light of day.

If I may be provocative for a moment, I would say that, while marketing services agencies have rightly been put under enormous pressure by clients to become better integrated, many clients don’t seem to have put quite the same pressure on themselves to break down their own divisions. There are fine exceptions to this rule but, for the most part, company siloes are even less porous than twenty years ago - best exemplified perhaps by “here’s the media we’ve bought, now what’s your idea?” If I were a more cynical man, I might suspect that the principal appeal to clients of integration is not so much that it provides better solutions, but that it allows them to spin a plausible narrative about cost-cutting and rationalisation to the finance department.

If you aren’t quite that cynical, a large part of the benefit of integrated agencies must be that they are structured to produce ideas which defy easy categorisation. But there is no point in doing this if such ideas are presented to people whose purview only extends to a very narrowly defined form of activity, who are incentivised to pursue only narrow intermediate metrics, and who freeze at the sight of anything outside their narrow remit. I particularly hate the phrase Marcoms - since it narrowly defines people by function rather than by purpose. “I can run ads, but parkland is outside my job description.”

Why does this matter so much more than before? Because, I think, as business becomes increasingly complicated, more and more problems involve complex, interconnected systems rather than independent, standalone objectives. These problems can’t be solved one silo at a time. At Ogilvy Change we sometimes call these problems Sudoku problems - because they can only be solved by looking at the whole grid. You can’t cut up a Sudoku into nine independent squares and ask nine individuals to solve their square individually.

Yet one of the problems of the modern fetish for measuring everything more precisely is that it forces people to define everything they do ever more narrowly, and hence to draw more and more fatuous distinctions between things (take the current idiotic fad for distinguishing between “working” and “non-working” marketing spend). The end result is, to borrow the words of Keynes, that you end up precisely wrong rather than vaguely right.

For more on this topic, I recommend Gillian Tett’s excellent book The Silo Effect.

This piece was taken from the June 2017 issue of Market Leader, available as part of Marketing Society membership.

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