Irrelevance Blows

Is your marketing relevant? Is the product or service that’s being marketed? These are tough questions in the ad biz. Brutal, really.
Alan Wolk, for one, understands the lack of relevance in our midst, and what a danger it is.

Agencies have stopped being relevant. Much of what they produce is reactive, out-of-date and lacks any real thought process. Hence their reputation for the ability to focus on finding the exact right shade of blue while ignoring the actual purpose of the ad in question. Agencies need to get back to their position as thought leaders, as the people who invent trends and influence pop culture. That means hiring people who can think and actually giving them some authority.

There are a million directions one might go with this. I went in one direction on Dr. Wolk’s site (in the comments), but will go another way here.
Dr. Wolk brings up the issue of hiring. Great, because agencies hire creative staff, not on how “creative” they might be, but how well they’ve packaged this supposed creativity into a portfolio. Recruiters know what to look for. CDs know what to look for. And therein lies the problem. If agencies want to hire thought leaders, as Dr. Wolk suggests they might, they’ll have to learn to spot them, woo them and keep them interested. That seems like a daunting task to me. One on the order of the Detroit automakers.
To stick with the auto industry metaphor for a moment, if one wants to work at GM as an automotive engineer, one clearly needs the structured academic background required to make cars. Here’s the glitch…”cars” are no longer the answer. Thus, the engineer with the perfect design portfolio is no longer the right person for the job.
So, who exactly is the right person for the job today? Who will bring advertising back to its creative pinnacle? Perhaps, no one. Perhaps, the concept of advertising is actually withering on the vine, and like newspapermen, we’re blind to it. There are certainly more questions than answers. But it’s answers we need.
The answer that makes the most sense to me personally is branded utility. Adding something of value to the discussion makes a person or a brand relevant. But it’s rarely done. One of the reasons it’s rarely done is no one’s grounded in it. Clients and their agency partners are not trained to think about adding value to customers lives. There’s no textbook to follow, and the CEO has said nothing on the subject. Yet, experience isn’t the bottom line. Common sense is.

About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today, as head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon, I'm focused on providing affordable and effective integrated marketing solutions to mid-market clients.


  1. This is so true! Something with no emotion like a search engine is often more relevant in marketing than any ad could be. This is especially true in health care marketing. Word of mouth is the number one source of health care referrals and today’s social media tools extends that source of word of mouth beyond family and friends. The community of peers adds value with relevant and credible information when the timing is right. The timing is right because it’s based on the customer’s timing–when they actually need it and want it.

  2. Thanks for the link-love David. And the new moniker.
    I am in complete agreement with you diagnosis of agency hiring practices. “C” at AgencySpy has voiced a similar complaint: agencies need to stop hiring the usual suspects if they want to change the game.
    The problem is that thanks to the holding company model, so many agencies are tied to a 1:1 billing game (e.g. they need to account for every dollar of salary with a dollar of billing) and their business model is built around giving away thinking, charging for execution.
    So that even if they wanted to hire someone for their ability to think, they don’t have the fiduciary leeway to do so.