The Truth Is The Truth, Not What The Client Says It Is

Rance Crain is President, Crain Communications and Editor-in-Chief of Advertising Age, Crain’s Chicago Business, Crain’s New York Business and TelevisionWeek. As such, he has seen and heard a lot of bullshit in his day. You might even say he has an especially sensitive bullshit meter, something Ernest Hemingway declared essential for any writer.

Given his profession, it’s not surprising that Crain rejects President Clinton’s call for advertising people to help solve world problems.

“You can have a major impact by telling what the facts are. There is an enormous amount of misinformation, inappropriate emphasis, and focus on the trivial and fleeting,” Mr. Clinton told a packed crowd at Cannes last month. “We need people like you to fire our imagination and to fill our brains as well as our hearts,” Clinton added.

Crain believes President Clinton’s “call to arms is built on the premise that ad people somehow are able to divine what the truth is. The truth is what the client says it is, and the client doesn’t have any inside pipeline to the truth either.”

Of course, I do understand where Crain is coming from. He’s trying to reflect the reality on the ground, not the dream from the dais. Be that as it may, the truth is not what the client says it is. The truth is the truth.

Historically, ad men and women have been employed by clients to promote false claims about their products and services. Often times the false claims are ridiculous and relatively harmless. Take Coors Light’s claim that it is the coldest beer on the market. I’m sure the beer execs in Golden, Colorado have the supporting facts to back their odd claim, but who cares? No one’s being hurt by the stretching of this “truth.”

In other cases, the client’s version of truth does indeed beg to be challenged, particularly in this age of real time communication and radical transparency. Imagine the balls it took for Crispin to tell Domino’s their pizza was the problem, not their advertising. Crispin did that because their goal is to disrupt the category, and they possess a supreme confidence that they could replace Domino’s with another big client, should push come to shove. Most agencies lack this kind of confidence and that’s where Crain’s line, “the truth is what the client says it is” comes from. If Domino’s had a different agency, they’d still be stuck making mediocre pizzas.

We need more bravery in this business, not more rationalizing and excuse making. It is not Crain’s job to be an idealist. But there’s no reason for those of us who actually work in MarCom to accept his deeply cynical worldview, or anything less than the truth from ourselves and our clients.



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—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.