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Guess for Success?
If your ad agency tells you
it can handle new product development, don‘t believe it!

by Barry Feig

What the advertising Agency is saying: ‘We put our whole staff on this proposal and worked overnight.‘

What they‘re thinking: ‘...xeroxing our standard marketing jargon and clichés from last month‘s proposals.‘

What the agency is saying: ‘We probably overkilled a bit because we wanted to be extremely thorough in our analysis.‘

What the agency is thinking: ‘I‘m glad we used big type and those fancy index dividers really make it look impressive.‘

What the agency is saying: ‘I know the creative is right on target with your current and peripheral goals.‘

What the Agency is thinking: ‘I hope we guessed right.‘


"These have been months when the owners of advertising agencies have had to live with the frightening thought that a right guess about the future might make them a fortune, while a bad guess might put them to shining shoes for a living."


The above boldfaced, quote is from a 1958 Life magazine article about the (then) state of advertising. That same article pointed to something new in the ad world that was to take the guesswork out of advertising -- motivational research. The major advertising agencies were making copywriters get out of their offices and interview real live consumers instead of looking at vague Spectre Analyses, or whatever the buzzword is today. From these interviews sprang such classics as the Marlboro Man, "Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should" and the Swanson line of TV dinners -- promoted on the basis of nutrition, not speed.

As a one-time president of an advertising agency and copywriter for others, I see things changing for the worse.

While advertising agencies have always been on a par with Christmas fruitcakes as an easy mark for cheap shots, they deserve them more and more, especially in the new product development arena.

Today, more than ever, new product advertising / positioning and new product development is a product of guesswork, particularly with recession fears forcing agency cuts on not-essential-for-profits basic research services. Worse, it‘s often backwards guesswork.

What agencies won‘t admit (but clients sometimes suspect) is that rationalization for the creative comes after the creative is developed. It‘s like building a house aruond a nail.

It can be a very expensive guess. While a manufacturer can make a new mold, or reformulate a product, once the message is in the media - hell, as soon as the production bills are in -- those are gone dollars, money tossed against a maelstrom.

As an example, where are all those microwave meals (sold mainly on speed-of-preparation) that were on line just a year ago? Killed by companies and their agencies who misjudged the market and showed absolutely no consumer insight into the market. Look at all the new products and improvements in the Sunday coupon supplements. How many will be on the supermarket shelves a year from now, and how many will be 3-for $1.00 at Joe‘s Pushcart Joblot store?

As much as it can hurt larger companies, the problem with the smaller players is even worse. Writing off losses often means writing off a company. Bad guessing is more the rule than the exception with a smaller company because of lack of money for research and the need for speed. Unfortunately, good-looking graphics don‘t make up for a lack of solid ideas.

What the agency is saying: "Think of us as your business partner"

What the agency is thinking: "Yeah, right."

It‘s not that agencies are trying to do the wrong thing, but the hard fact of life is that the prime business of most advertising agencies is selling advertising -- not solving business problems. Selling advertising and communications is an agency‘s lifeblood. It‘s how they make their money. It‘s always been that way since advertising agencies got their start strictly as sellers of media space. Agencies know it‘s more important to please the client -- or else they won‘t get a chance to sell the product. Hence the need for elaborate dog and pony creative presentations.

If they weren‘t essentially guessing, then they wouldn‘t have to sell the idea so hard. The standard procedure is to come up with three ideas -- one the agency likes, one that the client will buy and a third because three is a nice number.

What about the consumer? Does anyone care? Can anyone afford not to care?

What the agency is saying: "Sure we do new product development."

What the agency is thinking: "We also sell frogs legs from the back room. What are we going to say? ‘No‘ -- and lose the account?"

It‘s extremely difficult for advertising agencies to make money on new product development. It‘s a waste of their resources and they know it. They simply can‘t earn enough for a respectable return on investment. It‘s also poor for morale. Copywriters, creative directors and art staffers hate to work on new products because it doesn‘t furnish finished ads to build up their portfolios. In effect, whatever hours a creative person puts on a new product that may or may not hit the shelves is time taken away from career advancement.

That‘s why, unbeknownst to most clients, new product work is typically given to junior copywriters and novice art directors.

Of course, it‘s true that there are agencies who can do a competent job on new product development, but, in my experience, they‘re clearly in the minority. Most agencies won‘t even take the time to learn how to do it right. One mega-agency sent over a million dollars in creative and account talent to heckle a new product shop (with the client present) in their final presentation. The agency hadn‘t had the means, the will or the talent to handle the project correctly and had failed on their previous try.

One of the most painful lessons of new product development is that it is an intensely speculative, labor intensive business. It‘s time for alternative solutions

Mr. Feig is president-creative director of New Products Workshop Inc. This article is one of several that was published in Food & Beverage Marketing.

For More Information Contact:
Barry Feig:
Telephone 800-707-0739
Santa Fe, NM 8750