Ostlers and Lamplighters

St John’s Wood was developed in the early 1800s as a genteel London suburb, with low density villas as opposed to the terraces familiar in the East and South of the Capital. As such there would have been plenty of business for ostlers (or stablemen) and ready employment for lamplighters who strode along the streets at dusk and dawn with the long poles that were the tools of their trade.
Of course both occupations have long since disappeared. As I walked briskly yesterday afternoon from Lord’s to the Tube at the end of the ISBA Conference, I fell to wondering if admen and marketers could suffer the same fate.
This was ISBA’s 25th Annual Conference. In years gone by the relationship with agencies would have been a key agenda item. Prominent agency leaders would have been speaking. Marketer delegates would have felt like ‘clients’. How very different this March. As snow flurries freshened up the Nursery Ground, agencies were conspicuous by their absence from the agenda – nor were there many agency attendees.
In the morning, delegates were regaled with presentations on EU regulation, newspapers, social media and brand purposing. We saw ads, but they were mere illustrations (and mostly unattributed) from EffectiveBrands, a marketing consultancy firm dedicated to taking their clients global.
Isn’t that what BBDO, McCann, Ogilvy and co used to do? Of course it was Ogilvy who were responsible for the legendary Dove case history. Sad therefore that in the EffectiveBrands presentation their ads were shown but not credited to the agency.
If the morning had been awkward viewing for sensitive agencies, the afternoon was hardly a comfort blanket for the legion of marketers in the room. First, any complacency would have been blown away by the performance of this year’s crop of Marketing Academy students (mainly 30 somethings from clients and agencies). Not only were their communication and presentation skills ahead of what their seniors managed earlier. Their message was encouragingly and chillingly clear:
• The role of marketing needs to be redefined to deal with its many critics
• Marketing has to be seen to be ‘doing the right thing’, rather than just push products and services. A moral code is needed
• The talent pool needs to be urgently refreshed with people with more diverse backgrounds and experience.
Then we heard from a panel of seasoned marketers who had made it to the Boardroom – no mean feat, given that only 40 of the FTSE Top 350 companies have a marketer on their boards. Were these super-successful ex-marketers reassuring about the profession that had been their pathway to glory? Absolutely not. They were also worried about the talent pool. They criticised marketers who were full of jargon and short on numbers and accountability. They said marketers were often un-cooperative and not on the right agenda. They want marketers to be more widely experienced – preferably in consumer-facing roles. They said that marketers should have a single-minded focus on driving sales and top line growth. They encouraged marketers to pick up experience internationally, so they can learn new things and become less insular. They bemoaned the loss of so many of the old ‘marketing universities’. Steve Langan spelled it out: ‘marketing is a tool to an end, not an end in itself’.
It’s a tough environment for both agencies and clients. We all know that. What I took out of the ISBA Conference was that neither can take the security of their position in the world for granted. It is now apparently open season to talk about marketing communications and say little about agencies. Also for both the new generation and those with years of experience to talk about the future of marketing in much less than admiring language.
But there’s always hope. I suppose ostlers graduated to work in garages, while the lamplighters were the forerunners of today’s energy companies!