Unlearning – The ‘Mainline’ Agency Posted on | afaqs

Does this term put a psychological limit on the responsibility of creative agencies?

There are common terms in agency (and often marketers’) vocabulary, that we desperately need to unlearn in today’s environment. Vocabulary shapes mindsets and mindsets define actions. Unlearning some of the marketing vocabulary could go a long way in helping marketers and agencies stay relevant. Let’s talk about one such term today that needs to be put on a steep unlearning curve.

Visualise a conference room where the marketing team of a leading consumer electronics company is in a deep discussion with its agency partners about a new product launch. There is data on the table about a category audit conducted by a leading research agency. There is information about consumer segments, retail mix, product mixes, media mix, conversation density, sentiment analysis etc. and the task is now to find a brand proposition that can lead the go-to-market strategy. There are many things to consider and many more variables to balance. The entire marketing team is in the room and so are all the agencies – creative, media, digital, search, social, performance marketing, activation, and PR. This is, after all, an ‘integrated’ brainstorm where all disciplines will work together to create a joint plan. Hours of discussion later, there is still no consensus on where to start.

Suddenly, someone in the room goes, “Let’s crack the mainline idea first.” Slowly, people start coming around this, as a good handle to start. There are many viewpoints tossed around, thrashed and the meeting ends with everyone agreeing to meet in a few days with their respective ideas. Fast-forward a few weeks later, there’s a campaign in place with a great looking TV commercial (with a longer edit available for running online as ‘digital content’); some ‘matching luggage’- like ideas for print, outdoor, POS, social media posts; a media innovation; an online contest (with iPads to be won); and maybe even an activation in malls that creates buzz around the campaign tagline. In the end, a Brand Manager (or Account Manager) volunteers to create an elegant deck to put all of this together. An integrated (or 3600) campaign is born.

Sound familiar?

About two decades ago when I entered the business of advertising, the number of domain-experts in such meetings was fewer and the consumer touchpoints were simpler. However, by-and-large, this is how we did things and not much has fundamentally changed for a rather large number of brands, even today.

Which brings me to the point of this story – the mainline agency. It is a term I have heard widely used by marketers and agencies in India to describe their creative agency. Similar terms include brand agency or the ATL agency. The Indian subcontinent is perhaps the only part of the world where the term ‘mainline agency’ is still prevalent. While there’s nothing wrong with the term, per se, its prevalence is distorting the priority order of today’s marketing ecosystem. It is dragging us back into the 90’s era of thinking that presumes the advertising idea running is at the core of a brand’s strategy, while other touchpoints create the surround sound to amplify it.

At the same time, we celebrate iconic campaigns that break this norm in every way imaginable. The number of campaigns that win a Global Effie or a Titanium Lion at Cannes with a TVC at their core today are exceptions, not the norm. Yet, we continue to take recourse in the comfort of mainline being a major part of the answer to our biggest marketing challenges.

Casualties of ‘mainline’ in our vocabulary:

  • Presumes that ads made for mass media are the mainstay of marketing
  • Nudges marketers to believe that it’s okay to put 70 per cent of their energies (and not just the dollars) behind mass media
  • Makes CMOs spend far more time debating nuances of a film script while delegating things like digital, experiential and activation to their teams
  • Making the fatal error of thinking digital or mobile is not ‘main’, even in 2018
  • For agencies, diverting their best creative talent to traditional media while tech firms and consulting firms continue to gain ground on subjects like CX and digital transformation
  • To all proponents and users of the term mainline, I have a question – what is ‘main’ and where is this imaginary ‘line’?

The only thing that using the term ‘mainline’ does, is put a psychological limit on what each agency’s responsibility is (and more importantly, isn’t). It gives license to a digital agency to not think brand, an activation agency to not think technology and so on. The only thing that should matter to a brand is to be a part of the customer decision-making process every step of the way; making the journey as seamless as possible for the consumer. How we do that is secondary.

Vocabulary shapes mindsets and mindsets define actions. It could help create a healthier ecosystem where brands create memorable experiences for their users throughout the user journey instead of silo-ing her user experience with screens or touchpoints.

Vikas Mehta, CEO, PointNine Lintas 

This article was originally published on afaqs.com