Gokul Krishnamurthy
Jul 24, 2014

Gokul’s blog: If they had a choice, would clients give up ‘control’?

The Titanic sank because they didn’t let the specialist do his job. But clients will learn only from their own mistakes.

Gokul’s blog: If they had a choice, would clients give up ‘control’?

There’s no dearth of articles on the need for marketers to ‘let go’ of control to script success stories on social media. There’s no dearth of marketers either, who wax eloquent about their customers being the custodians of the brand, about their enabling and encouraging two-way conversations with these stakeholders, and even on the importance they assign to ‘listening’ to customers empathetically.

A conversation with an agency head the other day led to a debatable subject: If they had a choice, would marketers relinquish control of their brands on social media? Forget social media, what about the larger context - given a choice, would they allow anyone enough rope to help shape their brand? Or is there always a first among co-creators?

The passionate marketer

There was this very respected telecom brand that was to launch in a circle. A senior member of the government of the circle (State) was rather superstitious, and wanted the brand to change the colours of its logo to something s/he considered auspicious. The brand managed to retain its identity. I’m not sure how they managed it though. Launching as it did in such unimaginable circumstances, the brand still grew in the circle to a respectable size. Aiding it along the way were its agency partners.

A few years later, there came on board a senior executive, to assume a leadership position in the circle. He had moved from another circle and had been on the same brand. He had all the necessary qualifications. And the experience, across sectors. He was passionate about the brand and all the communication it sent out. And how!

I vividly recall one joint meeting a day prior to Diwali. Our brand was to announce (as did most brands) a special scheme for the festival. Those were the pre-per-second-billing days.

There was a new ‘Plan’ for every festival or for every week, whichever came first. The client had representatives of four agencies (in a post disntegration era) – media, creative, direct and PR – seated in his cabin. He seemed deep in thought, gazing at a blow up of the front page solus of the next day pinned on to a soft board for all to see. In particular, there was one comma that was visibly concerning him. It was no coincidence that the agency’s star copywriter (also working on the account) had refused to attend the meeting. He had dealt with this client a few weeks ago.

The rest of us listened while the client pondered aloud, on the ramifications of the potential comma at ‘a critical part of the copy’. How would it impact the consumer’s psyche? Could it move the needle from interest in the creative (since we’re assuming s/he’s still reading), to inclination towards the offer? Preference for the brand, ‘pause of believability’ and other such profound sounding stuff followed. Oh, and yes, it was just past 6 pm and we’d been at it for over an hour by now. The client had even been given time to prepare. He had been sent four different creative routes he had mandated the agency to come up with an hour before we arrived.

Next up was the visual representation. No, the art director wasn’t around either. If the entire paper would be full of ‘Diwali Special’ ads and therefore fireworks and sweets and festivities, what should we show? How can we be different, and festive, without showing the festivities in a stereotypical manner? Should or should there not be a lamp? Could we find out from the daily, what the others ads on page one were – and also check the creatives?

You get the picture. The meeting ended at half past seven. We managed to send the creative over to the newspaper’s office. It had a lamp, which was not too glaring. It featured a 'classy', 'open' box of sweets. It featured no people. It drove home the message (at least according to the client) in a manner befitting of the brand and the offer. After all, what the brand was offering was ‘never-before’ discounted rates for certain services!

It’s a pity agencies never get to check the effectiveness of such ‘marketing innovations’. It’s also a pity we’ll never know if customers were half as excited as the client about the product.

Stories of the passionate client’s deep engagement on communication assignments resonated across the walls of the agency during lunches and coffee breaks more than they did during work hours.

The next time I heard from him was when he hunted me down at my next job (in the pre-LinkedIn era) and said he wanted to present to me about his new business venture. What ensued was a power point presentation about a direct selling company and how it empowers enterpreneurship. What he did not know was that the company was also a client handled by his former agency. That’s how well he knew his agency.

Why this Kolaveri?

Clients are rightful brand custodians. The buck stops with them. They need to take the final call on what will work for a brand and what won’t. But if they want to come up with the creative idea, and also shape its execution, they should then rope in specialists just for execution, and define scope of the mandate upfront. They would also save on cost if they take this route.

The most successful marketers are those who have allowed creativity to flow in from all quarters, including agency partners, whose job it is to contribute creatively. The best ad campaigns in the world have been conceived by advertising professionals and not CMOs or CEOs of client organisations. It’s also worth noting that when suits or creatives migrate to the client end, most morph into unrecognisabe, myopic, unreasonable 'value' seekers in record time.

Yes, the oft-repeated ‘an idea can come from anywhere’ holds. But thinking out of the box happens when the thinking happens out of the box that clients get cocooned into in the course of their jobs. That's why they hire professional help.

The Titanic sank, if I remember the movie right, when the captain was asked to break some timing record for sailing across the Atlantic. It crashed when he followed instructions against his own judgement. The ship wasn’t his, but he still knew the job best. They should have let him do his job.

(The author is editor, Campaign India. E-mail: gokul@haymarket.co.in)

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