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Idea, not the medium, is the message in advertising

Submitted by on Thursday, 7 October 2010No Comment

ALTHOUGH Fraser Lamb, group CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands SA, was born in Scotland, in the early seventies his parents chose to come and live in SA, after briefly considering Canada and New Zealand. “God forbid! I could have ended up an All Blacks supporter,” he says without a trace of a Scottish accent.

However, given the obvious, almost religious passion for rugby he displays as we briefly discuss the game, the Kiwis might have enjoyed having this Lamb in New Zealand.

Originally an electrical engineer, he just could not see himself making a career of it. “Later I studied for an MBA.”

When I explain my cynicism about MBAs – that they always make sure you know they have one – he laughs and says he is very proud of getting it.

“If you saw how shocking I was at school you would never have believed I could have done it. And when I actually got my MBA, my father was just so proud of me it was the first time I ever saw him cry.”

Three years ago, Lamb was promoted from head of direct agency Wunderman within the Y&R Group, to CEO of Y&R Brands. This was firstly to stop him criticising his predecessor – it appears there was a large element of “put up or shut up” in his promotion – and secondly to turn the agency into a more creative vehicle. He gave himself three years to achieve this.

“Interestingly, the stigma when I took over was that even though Y&R did work that worked, the agency wasn’t exciting or creative – it wasn’t sexy and was very conservative. But, given we are in the business of ideas, I believed we could change that.”

Lamb used the first year to get rid of deadwood; the second year to fix the agency. “And to take it on the beginnings of a journey,” he explains, “which is all around our mantra, ‘resist the usual’. Most clients clamour for out-of-the-box or original thinking – until they see it. So on any given day it is quite a scary promise we make. In fact, ‘resist the usual’, in action , is arguably one of the hardest things I have tackled.”

Lamb had a major coup early in his new CEO role when he managed to lure the much- awarded Mick Blore from Saatchi & Saatchi to Y&R as creative director. “He is simply brilliant,” says Lamb.

Of his goal, he says: “In the third year – the one we are in now – the purpose has been to increase the client base and focus on winning awards.”

I suggest that, rather than having any commercial relevance, awards are more about Eurocentrics targeting other advertising professionals to show them how clever they are, but Lamb disagrees.

“There is, globally, a direct correlation between agencies that have won awards and agencies that are commercially viable. Awards do two things; they enable an agency to attract talent and talent is extremely scarce in this industry at the moment ; and they help to attract new clients, because when customers go to pitch they use awards as an indicator of an agency’s creative status.”

He smiles. “They also use headcount, if you would believe that.” (Y&R is closing in on a staff complement of 400.)

Lamb is convinced Y&R is on track to win awards. “The signals coming back are good. We have just organised a ‘day of the critics’ – because we have plenty of them – to come and view a serious body of work we have done and to meet the teams behind it . I was at an awards evening last night (the AdReview Awards hosted by Tony Koenderman) and hopefully it is the last time we don’t get to go up.”

Then he laughs and adds, “We are not ever going to say we don’t believe in awards until we have at least 60 of them.”

Lamb does concede that being creative for creativity’s sake is not the object of advertising. “You always have to remind yourself that the point of advertising is to move product and services off the shelf.”

He goes on to propound his theory that essentially they are in the business of idea generation. The medium, while being important, is not the message. “The ‘idea’ is the important thing – an idea has to be able to be activated through any channel, especially now the consumer has moved on from just the four big disciplines, TV, radio, outdoor and print.”

Before he gets too deep into his “idea” theory, I mention a comment that is often attributed to the soap powder magnate Lord Leverhulme, “Half my advertising spend is wasted, but I don’t know which half,” and I ask Lamb about accountability in advertising. How does Y&R show the client that the agency is actually making a difference?

“After a campaign is finished we sit down with the client and try and have ” – and he smiles, I thought somewhat cynically – “a mature and frank discussion about what we tried to achieve and whether we did actually do what we set out to do. Given that a lot of the budget does go to very measurable channels – and here digital has helped our plight – where we do know exactly how we are doing and can show it, there is still a portion of the budget that is invested in the intangible value of a brand, which doesn’t really give you tangible proof of return other than a perception of enhancement of brand value .”

He says the world of advertising is very subjective. “Our concern is for the intangible value to be in the eye of the customer and not a number on a spread sheet. We believe the customer’s perception is a better measure of value than any formula that consultants come up with, which says a particular brand is worth so many millions or billions.”

Among brands that Y&R manages are Pick n Pay (its biggest client by a long way), Colgate, Danone, LG, Chevron/Caltex and Phillip Morris International. Lamb agrees that having such a large part of the business tied up in one client – Pick n Pay – is not good business practice. “That keeps me awake every night. It is something I inherited and something I have to change. I would love to halve the dependency on Pick n Pay, but of course,” he adds emphatically, “I wouldn’t give them up for anything.”

He then notes en passant, that last year in the recession Y&R had one of the best years in its history, because it has such a large retail portfolio.

“The retail guys dug deep to survive the hard times and they spent more, which helped us. Yet funnily one of the stigmas attached to Y&R is that we are a retail agency.”

The agency does have some sexy brands. “We’ve got Virgin Atlantic, one of the most charismatic brands in the world, and others like Nintendo.”

From brands we get onto one of Lamb’s pet peeves, which is that business does not treat customers as assets. “No matter how much is spent getting new customers, they are never, so to speak, entered into the asset register.” He expounds on how an agency should amortise a customer as it would, for instance, a car, adding that at a certain point a business should also know when to “park” a customer. “You should exit a customer when they are no longer of value to you. Let them go and be a nuisance to some other business.”

At this point I touch on a well-publicised Fraser Lamb experience that has subtly crept into South African advertising lore. While staying in a five-star hotel in Cape Town he discovered there were no Hansa beers in the bar fridge so ordered one from room service.

The next time he stayed in the hotel Lamb again looked in the bar fridge for a Hansa beer – only to find there weren’t any.

“If they had been focusing properly on their customer, me, they would have seen from their records that during my previous stay I had ordered a Hansa from room service, and that would only have been because there wasn’t one in the bar fridge.

“So the next time I stayed, all they had to do was look at their data base and ensure that the fridge was stocked with my choice of beer.

“Had they done that, they would probably have had a customer for life. Instead they irritated the hell out of me. The first time was forgivable – they didn’t know. But the second time they had the information; they just didn’t act on it.”

His experience had some interesting effects. The Cape Grace called to ask whether it was the hotel concerned, which irritated him even more because if it had just looked at its records, it would have seen he had never stayed there.

Hansa liked it so much, it gave Lamb free beer for a year.

“I think next time I’m going to complain about there not being any Johnnie Walker Black,” he says laughing.

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