Why Your Agency Does Mediocre Creative Work (And What You Can Do About It)

7 min read

Band Sports ad: Dad looking off camera in family photo

Lately at Well Done, we’ve been studying Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, the thought-provoking classic about copywriting by Luke Sullivan and Edward Boches. It’s filled with great advice for anyone who wants to learn the craft of copywriting—and anyone who’s been doing it for so long they’ve forgotten what a thrill it can be to do great creative work.

And it got us thinking: Why are most ads so unmemorable? They’re not even bad. They’re so mediocre as to be almost nothing, invisible and entirely unmemorable.

Why? We have some ideas. Actually, we have lots of ideas. (Luke Sullivan would be so proud.)

Reason #1: Sturgeon’s Law

This is hardly the first time I’ve suggested Sturgeon’s Law as a reason so much advertising is crappy. Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction author and alleged model for Kurt Vonnegut’s character Kilgore Trout. In response to charges that 90% of science fiction was crap, Sturgeon noted—I paraphrase—that that was certainly true; but then 90% of everything is crap.

He was right. Most novels—even the good ones—aren’t great. Most movies and TV shows are just okay. Most pop music is not Pet Sounds.

And most ads are not DDB’s classic VW ads or “Where’s the Beef?” or Geico’s great series for homeowners’ insurance. Or even Waka Flocka Flame’s pitch for Pine Brothers: an objectively amateurish ad that is also pretty unforgettable. Most ads fall somewhere in the vast middle: Not great, not terrible. Also: not memorable.

Which prompts a question: Does your ad really have to be memorable to work?

It’s a bigger question for another post. At this point, I’ll just ask, what would it hurt? If people actually like your ads, they’re more likely to be your customers. Period.

What You Can Do About It: Frankly, this is the toughest one to fix. If Sturgeon’s Law is any indication, you have a one-in-ten chance to be great. You can at least take the chance. As the great Leo Burnett once said, “When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud, either.”

Reason #2: Too Many Cooks

Watch any episode of Top Chef involving a team challenge if you want to witness the literal truth of this old saw. In a more figurative vein, it results in a lot of mediocre advertising, too.

It’s easy to see why. Your average TV spot might involve not only a writer and an art director, but also the creative director, the account service team, the client(s), the director, various producers, the DP, the editor, the actors—and here we’ve touched only the high-level influencers. Unless someone has a vision and the authority to execute it, you risk a cascading series of compromises that render even the sharpest creative concepts toothless.

It’s even worse when you have to please a committee to get an ad approved. It’s hard enough to get two or three people to agree, let alone fifteen board members.

And running stuff up the corporate ladder for multiple levels of approval is just as bad.

We certainly understand the reality of the situation here: You gotta let the boss know what’s going on, and the boss has gotta be happy. But trust me: The work never gets better after multiple layers of executives have their say. Never. Gets. Better. No matter how it happens, too many people weighing in on the creative is the surest way to turn a great idea into mush.

What You Can Do About It: Give one person on your team the authority to make the decision about your agency’s recommendations. You can solicit opinions from as many people as you want, but you should have one decision maker. If you’re the president or CEO and you ultimately have to approve everything, let the agency present to you, not a marketing manager three reports down. Or give that marketing manager more authority. Either way, I promise you’ll get better work from your agency.

Reason #3: Trying to Say Too Much

One of the reasons committees and multiple approval layers make for bad creative is that everyone sees the problem a little differently, and everyone has their own little wrinkle to add to the ad. It makes for communication that’s complicated and unfocused instead of simple and direct.

In other words, it’s communication that, in trying to say everything, ends up not saying much of anything.

Committees aren’t the only culprits here. You’re perfectly capable of demanding 12 different copy points in one ad all by yourself. The result will almost certainly place you right in the middle of Mediocreville.

What You Can Do About It: Keep it simple. Pick one message and drive it home. If you really have 12 critical messages, make 12 ads. (P.S.: You don’t have 12 critical messages. For sure. Check out Ogilvy’s great ad for Band Sports above. See how much they said without any words at all.)

Reason #4: Not Trusting the Agency

You know who knows less about great advertising than we do? Almost everybody. It’s our profession and our passion and our livelihood. We study it. We work hard at it. It’s what allows us to put dinner on the table and pay the heating bills.

This isn’t ego talking. It’s fact. You hired us—we hope—not just because you need to get some marketing done, but because we’re good at what we do. Let us do it.

A smart advertising guy once said, “If you disagree with what your agency recommends, you should do it, anyway.” If you disagree with that, I can only say this: In my experience, more agencies get fired for doing crappy, client-approved work than bold work for risk-taking clients. The risk might make you a hero and get you a promotion.

What You Can Do About It: Trust your agency. They are working their butts off for you. And if you can’t trust your agency, fire them and hire one you can trust.

Reason #5: You Secretly (or Not-So-Secretly) Want Bad Work

Harrumph! How can that possibly be? Why would an advertiser want less-than-amazing creative advertising?

Because great work is risky. People might not like it. Might not get it. It might offend someone.

Mediocre work is safe. No one will tell the boss how much they don’t like it; you can’t hate what you don’t notice. Better to do something right down the middle—professional, but not provocative. Boring.

In other words, something a committee might love.

I once had a client—the agency’s biggest—tell me the ads I was presenting were too good for his company. At least he was honest.

What You Can Do About It: See above. Take the risk. It might make you a hero.

Reason #6: Your Agency Doesn’t Know Any Better

Honestly, this is a new one for me. I used to think that, while some agencies certainly had more talent than others, any agency could do good work for a great client.

I no long believe this. Some agencies just aren’t very good.

It’s not that they have bad taste—although this might be the case, as well. It’s that they don’t know great advertising from mediocre advertising.

A lot of this has to do with experience and training. For example: These days, most people who apply for a writing job at Well Done have never worked for a copywriter before—that is, they’ve never had a mentor in our industry. So even though they can probably write a decent blog post, they have no idea how to write an ad. Which means they’re gonna pull out every cliché in the book, including the one about pulling clichés out of a book.

What You Can Do About It: Hire a great agency. Ask them for great work. Foster a relationship and an environment in which it can flourish. Be a great client. Hire an agency that wants greatness for you.