The five stages of advertising grief

I imagine you’re familiar with the seven stages of grief?

They’re not pleasant.  They’re also not unique to individuals.  I dare say that corporates can adopt these personality traits when things aren’t going their way.

I say this because I read a headline this week which is possibly indicative of some broader learnings I’ve had over the past two years.

If you’re not familiar with WPP, it’s a worldwide marketing services company.  WPP owns some monster companies like Ogilvy and Burson-Marsteller.

WPP is normally trying to promote their clients and they’re no slouches at promoting themselves (after all, they’re an advertising firm). 

But this week they are getting a lot of publicity for free… only it’s not really publicity they would like. 

According to the The Independent: “WPP shares saw their biggest drop in 17 years after the world’s largest advertising company cut its full-year revenue forecast amid lower spending by customers, in particular consumer-goods manufacturers.”

Analysis of this drop indicates WPP is experiencing what many companies are going through: tougher growth conditions and digital disruptions.

The reason this fascinates me is that I reckon I’m indicative of what many of WPP’s clients would be articulating and experiencing.

You see, I’m responsible for my company’s marketing spend.  I approve where we spend and where we cut.  And, over the past two years, I have cut and cut deep. 

That’s because in times gone by, my company has invested heavily in ‘traditional’ advertising mechanisms, such as magazines, cinemas and billboards.  The prevailing wisdom of this approach seemed to be that: “all our competitors are doing it and we can’t afford to be seen as the one who isn’t there.”

I have some sympathy for this rationale.  It would be a pretty gutsy business to withdraw from the crowded advertising marketplace and no longer participate alongside all the others.  

In some ways it may be the equivalent of Ford not going to any more motor shows (an imprecise example but I think it's vaguely acceptable).

Well, that’s exactly what I did.  And the fallout was steep, but not in the way you may be thinking. 

I couldn’t notice a discernible difference to our market share, but our advertising representatives at magazines, newspapers and websites were well and truly caught off guard.  They had come to expect that my company would participate in their regular call-outs for adverts. 

And this is where we come to our seven stages of grief – because I reckon I identified five stages of grief in advertisers when hearing about my shift in strategy and spending:
  1. Disbelief: “Are you serious?  This is silly of you… you’ll be back once you realise what a silly decision this is.”
  2. Concern: “Dylan… do you know what you’re doing?  I worry about the future of your company!”
  3. Desperation: “We have a special rate just for you – 2 pages for the price of half a page!
  4. Anger/manipulation: “We’re going to offer your spots to a competing business.  Then think of what will happen to you!”
  5. Acceptance: “I know you’re probably not interested but I just wanted to let you know of our special offer.”

I have a lot of sympathy – they’re experiencing exactly what WPP is experiencing: pressure on advertising budgets means you have to be smarter where you spend.  If I can’t measure it, I won’t spend it (well, I try not to, anyway).

Perhaps my sector (education) is just a little slower to catch on to what many corporates have been saying for years: we need to do more with less. 

The news is that, for companies like mine, the old days of spreading your marketing budget around liberally and saturating the market are gone.

So if your business model depends on advertisers taking a business as usual approach, then you may have some tough times ahead.