One goal forward, two goals back

Charles Vallance
Charles Vallance

Fulham's defeat at the hands of Burnley offers some lessons for us in advertising.

If you are a Fulham fan, please look away now. I am about to use your 12 January fixture against Burnley as an analogy. It may stir painful memories.

For those who are hazy on the details of this epic encounter at a drizzly and begrudging Turf Moor, three goals were planted in the back of the net in the first 23 minutes. And all three were scored by Fulham. No more goals were scored for the next 70 minutes and Fulham duly lost 2-1. I'm afraid two of their goals were own goals.

The point of this analogy is simple. Just like a football team, we in advertising can sometimes suffer more at our own hands than at the hands of our opponents. I'm hoping that 2018 will prove the high-water mark of self-inflicted wounds, but I'm not exactly holding my breath for 2019.

One of the things we seem to excel at as an industry is talking ourselves down. Too often, our self-analysis amounts to a narrative of creative decline, rather than celebrating the degree to which our creative product is flourishing and, shock horror, actually improving as opposed to deteriorating. The narrative often treats creativity as a threatened, cowering victim when, in reality, it has never had more scope, never been in greater demand, never been more valued and never been more muscular or prolific. 

Too often, we declare that traditional brand-building media are dead or dying, and that people are turning their back on the product we make, even when there is scant evidence to support this and plenty of evidence to the contrary. For instance, if TV advertising isn't working, why is there currently 9% TV inflation? And why do 86% of people still watch commercial TV in real time if they're trying to avoid our product?

A similar faux-cloud hangs over the destiny of agency brands. A handful of names have been retired or repurposed, it is true. But they are far outnumbered by the burgeoning cohort of new brands and new models that have launched over recent years. Moreover, in a Fulham-esque own-goal scenario, the decommissioning of the three most prominent brands wasn't driven by external events but a failure of those now-defunct brands to anticipate and embody the change that their nimbler competitors latched on to more quickly. Whether a change of name is sufficient remedy to prevent these rebranded companies from slamming the ball into the back of their own net again will be nothing to do with agency branding. It will be to do with good management and a focus on the net at the other end of the pitch, also known as planning for the future.

But own goals don't have to be big and agency-threatening. They can be small and relatively trivial. The cumulative effect of these little errors can, however, be calamitous. One of the things Stephen Woodford always used to preach to me, when not doing Alan Partridge impersonations, is the importance of making every client meeting as enjoyable and cordial as possible, even when the subject matter is difficult.

A proper agenda, a proper pot of coffee, machinery that is tested and works, a punctual arrival, a knowledge of everyone's names (even that chap from the insight department who occasionally turfs up), a listening ear, an enthusiasm for the task in hand and one's full attention (as opposed to being locked behind a laptop) are some of the obvious ways of achieving this goal. So obvious that they shouldn't really need stating. But how often do we neglect one of these eight basic courtesies? Obviously not you personally, dear reader, you would never do such a thing. But perhaps a member of the team, say, or a friend of a friend, impolitely and furtively looks at his or her phone just as that chap from the insight department is getting on to typology number five. I'm afraid you're already 1-0 down.

To complete the Fulham tale. It was André Schürrle who scored Fulham's titanic (and Teutonic) half-volley stunner to put them 1-0 ahead. This was then negated by Denis Odoi and Joe Bryan with their respective own goals. The question we might ask ourselves as we head into spring is: how we can put 2018's own-goal malaise behind us? How can we emulate the mighty Schürrle? How do we spend more of the year at the right end of the pitch, in front of the right goal, doing our job sublimely, when the opportunity presents itself? Or, at least, how do we avoid another own-goal bleatathon where we can only lose against ourselves? Come on, the Cottagers.

Charles Vallance is founder and chairman of VCCP

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