What the advertising industry has in common with my hairdresser

I had my haircut today. (I’m very happy with it, thanks for asking.)  It was cut by a man with faintly ridiculous hair.

His hair was dyed, very badly. It was at least a couple of shades too dark, particularly for a man with thinning hair. It was also fashioned in a quite dramatic style, again designed to distract from the thinness of the raw materials. It seemed the strategy was to adopt a style of such confidence that it would disguise the fact that the hair itself wasn’t quite up to the task.  It seemed rather like the last-ditch battle strategy of sending what few men you have out of the trenches and over the top, hopefully confusing the enemy into believing that such a display of bravado must mean that there are hundreds more men where they came from.

And as he cut my hair I became more and more focused on his hair.  It wasn’t so ridiculous that it would attract a second glance in the street. It was just the fact that you have heightened expectations of a hairdresser’s hair. You place it under that much more scrutiny simply because of what they do.

Which is an issue I think we in the advertising industry really struggle with.  We’re professional communicators with a disappointing tendency to communicate really badly on our own behalf.

If you’ve worked in the industry you’ll be familiar with the common examples. The bloated, trite press releases announcing client wins or losses.  The belated announcements to clients that key staff are leaving only days before they actually depart (despite the agency having known for months).  The fatuous, clumsy language we insist on inventing to describe our proprietary planning processes and to populate our creative rationales.

We’re not, arguably, that much worse than other industries. Lawyers seem also to revel in insular language, architects are equally fond of self-promotion through client appointment and technology companies are, by reputation, not the best at managing HR-related announcements.

But the issue is that we’re subject to greater scrutiny.  We’re in the business of communication, so there’s much more interest in how well we do that ourselves.  And slip-ups that wouldn’t warrant a mention from any other industry look just plain amateur from us.

This isn’t quite the same thing as the old favourite about plumbers having leaking pipes and builders having holes in their floor.  Because unless you make a visit to your builder or plumber’s house, you’d never know this.

But how we communicate is plain for all to see.  We judge our builder based on the work done for other people. But our clients can, and do, judge us based on the work we do for ourselves.

Which is what makes me uncomfortable about how the industry handled the TVNZ commission issue.  The end result in some ways isn’t really the point.  How we managed the communication of an industry POV around it is.  It seemed we tried to establish a position that retaining 20% commission was vital, either because there were a tier of smaller agencies that would struggle to survive because that commission represented their only form of revenue, or that that level of commission was necessary to ensure that a New Zealand industry could afford to retain the kind of talent that allows it to do great work, and hold its envied position as a country with a creative reputation that far outweighs its market heft.  But by the end we’d turned it either into an issue that possibly didn’t really matter to the big agencies, possibly was a long overdue change to an outdated remuneration arrangement or possibly was just an attempt to prop up excessive salaries in an indulged, out-of-touch industry.

The commission issue was one on which our clients were very focused. They looked to understand our perspective and how, alongside them, we would manage the issue. They saw us in action, our communication’s skills in the spotlight and we appeared rather clumsy.  It’s not that the points we started out wanting to make weren’t valid, it’s just that we didn’t do a great job of communicating with the clarity and consistency that we advocate for our clients.

And just as an ill-considered hairstyle undermines the credibility of a hairdresser, so an ill-communicated point of view undermines the credibility of a communications’ industry.

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What the advertising industry has in common with my hairdresser

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