Breaking Down The Creative Crisis | A Q&A with Advertising Giant David Meikle

25 June 2018

We interviewed David Meikle, an institution in the world of advertising, having held senior positions for advertising giants such as Grey London and Oglivy & Mather, to hear his thoughts on the dynamic between brands and agencies, working in advertising abroad and the campaign that has impressed him most recently.

Hi David, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your career to date?

Before starting my own consultancy business in 2009, I spent the majority of my career in big network advertising agencies, namely Grey Worldwide and Ogilvy and Mather as an Account Handler and latterly Board Director. After 8 years in London working on brands like BP, Nestle and Nokia I was offered the chance to run an agency for a BRIC market, and I moved to Moscow as Managing Director and Head of Country for Ogilvy Russia at the end of 2003. Running a BRIC agency at the peak of these markets’ economic boom was exciting and challenging, and I managed to grow the agency’s revenue by more than 500% in 4 years. Ogilvy Russia became WPP’s largest creative agency group in the Russian Federation, having been the smallest.

Returning to the UK, in 2009 I founded Salt Partners, based on my observation that advertisers often don’t work with their agencies or pay their agencies in ways that get the best value from them. Salt’s proposition was to help advertisers change their ways of working and paying to see a better return on their marketing investments. Over the last few years I worked with big advertisers like the Post Office, Bayer but also with the big agencies like AMV/BBDO, O&M, and Adam&Eve DDB.

"A lot of time and resources are wasted doing marketing activity that doesn’t produce a return. Famously, last year Proctor and Gamble cancelled $140m worth of online advertising and the impact on their sales was absolutely nothing"

I developed a lot of new thinking during that time, which I distilled and consolidated into my book How to Buy a Gorilla, after which I renamed the company early in 2017. Now I continue to work with marketing, procurement and agencies to develop smarter ways of working for better campaigns and greater returns on investment.

You headed up Ogilvy Russia and lived in Moscow for four years, can you explain how working there differed to working for in advertising in the UK?

The business culture in Russia is very different from Western Europe. Although Ogilvy Russia’s clients were mostly international businesses and therefore operated in a manner largely consistent with my previous experience, local advertisers and businesses with which I operated proved more difficult and took some getting used to. Culturally, there were a lot of advertisers that found it difficult to work in a cooperative manner, they were far more used to master/servant models. It took a lot of effort to demonstrate the value of working differently. And you can’t always rely on the rule of law if things go wrong! I have no shortage of dinner party conversation about my time there.

What were the main takeaways you learned from leading a huge agency not in your home country?

That it was very important to listen, and to quickly establish who could be your own trusted advisors to whom you could go with problems that required some cultural familiarity. But you also had to prove your commitment. For a long time before the BRIC boom, Russia was a place that people were sent when they couldn’t hack it in more developed markets, so when the economy started to boom and new people were sent there, understandably there was some cynicism about whether people like me were any good. One of my creative teams wanted to know I wasn’t the next Uriah Heap. When I said I didn’t understand what they meant, they replied, “Uriah Heap, the rock band, not the Dickens character – they can’t get a gig anywhere but in Russia”.

"There are three key players in the relationship: marketing, procurement and agencies, and often they perceive that they don’t share a common interest"

We know there is talk of advertising going through a ‘creative crisis’ right now, why do you think this has happened?

I think there are a number of crises at the moment if you listen to the industry zeitgeist, but this is nothing new. Advertising has behaved like a neurotic for a long time, always self-critical, always insecure and trying to reinvent itself but there’s a stable core in the middle of all the fuss. But like any industry there are existential challenges advertising faces. Shrinking revenues make it harder for agencies to attract and retain talent, clients are increasingly fickle so agencies are pitching for business more than they used to, and what can be done through digital technology still has a long way to mature – though too often agencies and their clients are doing new digital things because they can rather than because they should so a lot of time and resources are wasted doing marketing activity that doesn’t produce a return. Famously, last year Proctor and Gamble cancelled $140m worth of online advertising and the impact on their sales was absolutely nothing.

Why are relationships between ad agencies and brands so poor at the moment?

There are three key players in the relationship: marketing, procurement and agencies, and often they perceive that they don’t share a common interest. Marketers often believe agencies are pursuing their own creative agenda and taking longer to do their work so they get paid more, procurement are incentivised to make savings in marketing so they treat marketing budgets as costs rather than investments, they’re forever trying to reduce agency fees; and agencies’ profits are dwindling so they struggle to deliver the value they ought to as their resources stretch. In many cases, it’s the worst possible environment into which an advertiser should risk its marketing budget.

What ad campaign has impressed you most recently and why?

The MacMillan Cancer Support campaign of last year was superb, I wish I had seen it get greater coverage. The idea “A Dad with Cancer Is Still a Dad” by VCCP was very close to home for me, having recently lost my father to cancer, but summed up brilliantly a universal insight, that cancer should not define the person. Whether it’s your mate, your mum, your sister, your grandad or your lover (MacMillan did an ad for each), this insight delivered a real understanding to people unlucky enough to be dealing with cancer and provided a valuable education for those lucky enough not to have been touched by it. And it’s great to see that agencies still get to be this force for good among all the selling-stuff stuff.

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