Sell-out Scotland

Brandrepublic reports that a significant Scottish client is searching for a ‘London ad agency’. Which is depressing.

In a year in which one well-regarded Scottish agency folded, a few of the more (ahem) senior figures in Scotland’s shrinking adland fell out. The sniping with misfiring antique blunderbusses made playground taunts look like Olympic markmanship. It was counterproductive, dull and incredibly childish. As another bit of business goes south, the spat is also completely irrelevant to the deeper issues facing Scotland’s creative industries.

At best, the debate could be said to centre on whether, over the years, the positioning of a few creative shops as ‘your local London-style agency’ – and the kind of work that was produced – prompted clients to head down south for a wider choice of the real thing. I doubt it personally. The issue is more deep-seated, more complex and further-reaching than that.

Afore ye go

Here’s an illustration. Bell’s Scotch Whisky used to be headquartered in Perth. By the late 80s, the agency I worked for had held the business for over 35 years. Maybe the ads weren’t as cool as Jools Holland, but the brand was No. 1. A corporate battle saw Bell’s sold to United Distillers. Then Guinness scandalously swallowed Distillers. (With promises to retain Scottish operations. With dastardly share dealings. With jail time for criminal executives.)

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Call me naive. In the Guinness fraud, men like Ernest Saunders et al blithely broke the law. How could you expect them to keep promises? So today most of the decision-making about Scotland’s most famous product are made outside Scotland. And, to my knowledge, no major Scotch manages the brand through a Scotch agency.

Funny how American brands used US agency networks globally as the shock troops of Coca Cola culture. And yet Scottish brands often seem to outbid each other to abandon their roots. Now, is that because Scottish agencies aren’t good enough? Or because some of us aspired to a certain style of work? Nah. As simplistic as it is antagonistic, the in-fighting swerves the real issue: the long-term drift of corporate decision-making out of Scotland.

Money, not honey

I am on record (cf The Drum in 2003) as believing that Scottish agencies are very competitive and that ‘talent-wise’ are generally better than, for example, Dublin’s flourishing creative industry. In New York, I always felt if I could have teleported SMARTS onto Madison Avenue, we’d have torn up the market. Yes, we are a small, nimble, native English-speaking nation that isn’t English or American. And, believe it or not, a lot of international marketeers who aren’t English or American welcome that. Arguably, Scotland is no more peripheral than Portland where W+K grew up. So why haven’t Scottish agencies developed as an internationally-recognised centre of excellence? (Or perhaps, when even regional clients head for London, as a locally-recognised asset?)

As Bill Clinton contended in 1992, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Globalisation, the magnetic pull of the metropolis for money (and talent), Scotland’s historic weakness as an entrepreneurial culture, ingrained national self-doubt and lack of mutual support have helped turn the country into a branch economy.

It’s about the money, not the honey. (The acute among you will have recognised that Portland is also home to one of the world’s most marketing-committed brands, Nike.) As a result, our local market for ‘head office’ functions – such as marketing services – has lost critical mass. With so many ‘heavyweight’ professionals now forced to work the freelance circuit, we are more in danger of becoming a cottage industry than a creative powerhouse.B

But that’s not what I find most depressing about the week in which the industry petitions the Scottish Parliament. It’s the sense of deja vu.

London, baby, yeah!

Many clients face complex problems and look for an easy answer: an overarching ‘big idea’ that will be the panancea for all ills. It’s a laudable aim but shows you how easy it is to mistake the easy for the simple.

The simple solution to marketing is to build trust with your consumer constituency. Equally, trust is simply built by the frequency and relevance with which you communicate, as judged by the listener. That’s how consumers work out how sincere your interest is, and how strong your sympathy with them.

Now, that’s not easy, especially in distinctive regional markets. Quite possibly, that doesn’t sound like a job for a London-centric agency to you. Memorably, we once shared a Scottish-based brand with a very well-known ‘West End’ agency. (The company behind funny campaigns like the Smash Martians, The Honey Monster, The Hofmeister Bear – though it’s funnier now to see how nobody recognised their character-based formula.) Predictably, they did the glossy, high profile, profitable work while we did the hard graft of direct marketing and ‘trade’ support.

Finally, the agency came up with Captain Chaos – a character, no less – and it was an idea that helped put the nails in the coffin of a famous Scottish company. The TV ads blew some cash on Canonball Run ‘star’ Dom DeLuise, but mostly they just blew. The commercials were also strangely hated by ordinary members of the public who usually have a high tolerance for ‘badvertising’. One day in our office, the window cleaner noticed some of the support material lying about. ‘Did you do those TV ads?’ he asked. ‘Naw,’ we replied. ‘We’re just did a few posters and that.’ ‘Just as well,’ he said. ‘Or I would have had to stop cleaning your windows.’

Plus ca change

I’ve worked on a handful of rosters with much-fancied London agencies, and it’s always the same. Once you get past the veneer of a few stellar accounts, you’re just dealing with delusions of superiority. On a couple of ‘regional clients’ we shared, I’m sure one very, very large, well-known agency must have had the cleaner doing the ads. I remember a cringe-inducing proposal for a Scottish client that showed how clearly they knew what would resonate in Scotland. Each ad had more tartan on it than the Royal Mile. (After a few more embarrassing attempts, the client gave up and got us to do the ads.)

So, what’s the answer? The simple answer is that Scotland needs more clients. We need more ‘head office’ functions. And, at C-level, Scotland’s businesses need a policy of supporting and developing the pool of Scottish commercial creativity. Think of it as an investment. There’s a selfish motive for marketing teams too. If you continue to argue that there’s not enough talent outside London, your business might just take you seriously – and send your job south too.