Ad Age Celebrates The Consumer, Disses The Agency World

Ad Age has named The Consumer as their 2006 (?) Agency of the Year.  Kudos for sticking with the idea, even though the Time "me-too" criticism will undoubtedly follow.

Jim Nail of Cymfony says "Ad Age got it wrong."  I think it’s a matter of perspective – and here’s a different take on why I think this is a bad pick.

Given:  companies need a fundamentally "good" product and/or service.  That is, a company must produce something that meets consumer needs better than alternative choices.  (Brian, when’s that Big Idea coming?)

Understood:  Clever advertising won’t help a "bad" product become good.  It may help in the short-term, but you can’t fool consumers once they’ve had a bad experience.  As the saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still going to be a pig."

However:  (1) Advertising is about marketing communications.  Agencies produce campaigns, not products.  (2) Invention is difficult; innovation is easier.

So:  Agencies invent the concepts behind campaigns – from scratch – that get consumers riffing and sketching their innovative ideas that turn into YouTube videos and blog posts.  Plus, we’re only talking 1% of the public here – and strictly speaking, I’d say that 1% is more likely innovating, not inventing.

Let’s deconstruct Mentos/Diet Coke.  The majority line of thinking goes something like this:  Mentos got it right for embracing the community and was rewarded with a 15% spike in sales.  Coke got it wrong for taking a pass and was "forced" into a community-based response.  However, the best thing the video did for Mentos was to raise brand awareness – which doesn’t mean that more people are going out and eating more Mentos.  If anything, the short-term spike was probably from people going to to replicate the experiment.  This is where Diet Coke got it RIGHT – the video wasn’t going to drive long-term value from people consuming product.

If you believe otherwise, then you must also agree that more people are buying Bic pens for writing after hearing that they’re good for picking Kryptonite locks.

The point is – brand awareness doesn’t necessarily drive sales.  You may think that the Ritz-Carlton is a great hotel brand.  But if you never stay there – does it matter?

So agencies are forced with the unenviable task of inventing new ideas, while facing increasing pressure from the misconception that consumers can do it better.  But there’s no single agency that can be singled out for methodically harnessing consumer input, so go with option #2:  the consumer.

Look, I get the whole social computing idea.  But realistically, let’s not forget about the "institutions" – they create the concepts like PC guy vs. Mac guy, bodygrooming, or even Head-On that inspire consumers to do their thing.

And remember, just as "the consumer" incorrectly connotes one massive, homogeneous swarm of people, "the agency" consists of highly creative individuals, too.

UPDATE:  Ad Age publishes its "A-List" a day later…can we just call TBWAChiatDay Agency of the Year?