Has advertising got worse?

Q&A: Tim Lefroy, outgoing CEO of the Advertising Association, on managing 'creatives' and the passing of a golden age.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 24 Jan 2017

Tim Lefroy is stepping down at the end of 2016 as CEO of the Advertising Association, a membership organisation that includes agencies, marketing departments and media owners.  Having worked at Cadbury and Gillette, he later ran top agencies Yellowhammer and Young and Rubicam, where he worked on British Gas's famous 'Tell Sid' campaign, before starting his own change consultancy in the 1990s.

Lefroy’s headed the Advertising Association since 2009, a role he describes as being the industry’s ‘cheerleader and its conscience’.

If MT played devil’s advocate and said advertising is economic froth - it looks pretty but it doesn’t actually add any real value and distorts rational decision making - what would you say?

Waldo Emerson said if a man should build a better mousetrap, the world would surely beat a path to his door. Absolute bollocks. If you build a better mousetrap, you go out and advertise it.

Advertising lubricates competition, competition creates choice and choice creates price competition and innovation, which are good for consumers and the economy.

As a secondary activity it also funds the major newspapers, £5bn of free internet, sports and entertainment. Every lit bus shelter in the country is directly paid for by advertising.

Okay, okay, just checking. So how did you get into the game?

I started as an apprentice at Fry’s – I was Willy Wonka, I got a job in the chocolate factory, it was perfect. I did cost accountancy, distribution, production control, sales, then finally marketing. I just went yes. I’ve found it.

In 1978, I was lucky enough to get a job as an accounts director at McCann Erickson. I’d moved from Cadbury to Gillette, but I wasn’t happy there. I wanted to be a marketing director and thought that meant I had to understand this massive spend on advertising. Also, don't forget in the late 70s and 80s advertising was impossibly glamorous.

You’ve worked in marketing departments and agencies and ran your own business before joining the Advertising Association. Which was the hardest?

Working in agencies was very different from working in marketing departments. Agencies worked incredibly hard and were terribly inefficient. I’m sure it’s changed now...

Running my own change consultancy business was the hardest though. I’d run two top 20 agencies and I knew I wasn’t going to be given a third. I had an itch to use marketing principles to change companies themselves, not just the products and services they sold, but that meant I had to import other professional disciplines. I didn’t know about organisational change or HR at the time.

How had advertising changed when you came back in 2009?

It had changed completely. Managing standards were better, there was better use of data, but the big transformation had been – sigh - digital, obviously.

That’s a bad thing then?

Advertisers don’t stalk us but people don’t half feel like it when the same brand keeps popping up wherever they are. Is it better? Technically, the answer has to be yes. The watchword when I worked in agencies was effectiveness. In the last decade and a half it’s been much more about efficiency.

It’s effective and efficient, but if you ask me creatively, emotionally, nostalgically as an ageing person, do I think the work is as good as it used to be, I have to say no. I loved the work we came out with in the 1980s, that was groundbreaking and came from writers and directors who were utterly brilliant. I can reel off the list of brands that were made by great entertainment and great humour [in advertising].  

Do you have any tips for managing creative people?

There’s all sorts of psychobabble about the child ego state that’s the source of real creativity and imagination, tearing up rules and boundaries, but we’re in commercial communications. There are rules and boundaries and deadlines. You cannot make a 32 second television commercial just because you want to. Great advertising creativity also has great discipline.

You have to find the right balance though. Ad agencies are a lot like restaurants. It’s a live performance on a plate, every single day, multiplied by 200 covers. Why do chefs do it? Why do actors do it? There’s a type of courage and buzz in that performance, so who are the impresarios to say anything but we must give them the space and environment to be brilliant?

The fall of the ad man: How digital technology has changed advertising

Image credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr


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