Madison Avenue and the doppelganger strategy


So advertising is dead.  Everyone says so.  In its place, we’ll use banner ads, email marketing, product placement, that kind of thing.  The 30 second spot?  Oh, that’s dead as John Cleese’s parrot. 

Right?  Well maybe.  Me, I think the argument is deeply mistaken.  I believe that nothing manufactures brand meanings like a 30 second spot. 

But I am beginning to think that I am the only one who takes this position.  From the agency world itself, we hear not a peep.  Well, there was Lovemarks, from the head of Saatchi and Saatchi, but this was a book so bad that it almost made me wish that talk of the death of advertising were true. 

Otherwise, all is quiet.

Could it be that the ad world suffers a state of paralysis?  Is it mesmerized by the new marketing and now helpless in its path.  Will MadAve go quietly?

This doesn’t seem very plausible on its face. The ad biz is nothing if not "snappy with the come-backs."  This profession is well stocked with conceptual and expressive gifts.  It is occupied by people who can perform a 180 degree course correction, reinventing the entire logic of the pitch, in the 5 seconds it takes them to register "the client is not happy."  Capitalism has a secret company of improv players, and one day many of these subversives will prove to have been on the payroll of Madison Avenue.

No, I think the problem goes deeper than this, straight into the heart of the industry and the most adaptive of its adaptive strategies.   The first ethnographic work I did in Detroit was for an advertising agency.  An  agency guy saw what we were doing as particularly "new wave" and he regaled me with stories about the old days

In the 1950s, apparently, the agency had a favorite technique for managing the client.  It would go out and hire someone who was quite a lot like the client.  Actually, they sought a match so close, the effect was sometimes chilling.  The agency guy would just happen to like the same movies, the same sports teams, the same Vegas hangouts as the client.  He would kind of look like the client, talk like the client, and dress like the client.  In fact, in some cases, it was difficult to tell the difference between tweedle dum and tweedle dee, all the better to persuade Pontiac (or some other GM account) to sign those breath taking cheques and leave the agency alone. 

Call it a doppelganger strategy.  The 50s version was the most exaggerated form.  But I believe this strategy is with us still.  I believe the advertising world long ago committed itself to having no idea of what is was and what it did.  Surely, this was the smart thing to do.  I mean, if an agency insisted it used the Aaker model of advertising, well, what would happen if a client appeared who was particularly anti-aaker (I mean, of course, Aanti-Aaker)?  Surely, specificity was a bad idea.  The industry decided that on balance a clear idea of advertising would always cost an agency more than it gained it.  Oh, I don’t mean to say that there weren’t tendencies in the ad world.  Leo Burnett was always going to be seen as more "x" and J. Walter Thompson more "y," but, on balance, the industry conspired to create a code of silence on precisely what it was and what it did.  This was the smart, the adaptive, thing to do. 

This sort of thing costs you, I believe, in the long term.  Being all things to all people creates a certain imprecision of self definition.  After awhile, it’s hard to know who you are.  In the day to day, this doesn’t matter very much.  The prevailing notion seems to be, "What does it matter what they call us, as long as we just get paid?"  Everyone harbors the idea that one of these days, if we wanted to do, we could just sit down and sort this out. 

But neglected ideas have a way of disappearing.  Some, the head strong ones, will away in the night.  Others, heart strong, wither and die, proving not so heart strong at all.  And I think that’s where we find the industry.  Now that there is a crisis upon us, now that there is a paradigm shift under way, now that the industry is facing the disintermediation that has destroyed once mighty industries and brands, it proves to be too late.  The cupboard is bare. 

Sir Martin Sorrell once made the sly remark that the "interactive marketing is more measurable than traditional advertising–so its more pleasurable for the decision makers."  And I think this means we are entering really perilous waters.  We know, or I think we know, that much of the best work by the agency world would never have happened if advertising had always occupied a measurable world.  Sure as shooting, the client would have measured the wrong things, leapt to the wrong conclusions, and otherwise mangled the creative opportunity without shame or apology.  (The creative director with whom I worked in Detroit told me, "If I let the client get away with it, every single ad would be about engine specs and turning ratios!")

It’s as if the advertising world has been too fluid, too adaptive, too flexible and now that it is called upon to give an account of itself, it dithers.  "Don’t tell me. I know this one.  Umm.  Oh, damn."  As long as the client had no options, we could pull a "St. Augustine" on them: "do not seek to understand that you may believe but believe than you may understand" aka "just give us the money, and we’ll look after it."  But now that there is competition, there’s trouble.

There is a darker possibility here.  It may be that the advertising world wasn’t merely withholding clear and coherent ideas of what it was.  It may be that it never had these ideas in the first place or long ago ceased to believe in them.  Perhaps there was a creeping dread that there was no value here, that the whole thing was just a lark, a way to pry money out of clients, amusing one another, attending those endless award ceremonies, and dining often and richly on someone else’s account.  Some may have believed secretly that the cupboard was always thus.

I hope I’m wrong.  Perhaps Sir Martin Sorrell has a blistering manuscript in his desk drawer that will throw off the cloak of the shapeshifter, renounce the ways of the doppelganger, and make the case.   Maybe the ad biz isn’t dead after all.  Yeah, that’s it.  Maybe, as Mr. Praline would say, it’s just stunned. 


Cleese, John et al.  n.d. The Dead Parrot Sketch. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2006. Lovemark.  This Blog Sits at… Februrary 24, 2006. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2005.  When Cars Could Fly: Raymond Loewy, John Kenneth Galbraith, and the 1954 Buick.  Culture and Consumption II: marketings, meanings and brand management.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 53-90.  (for one of the accomplishments of the advertising world in the 1950s)

Sorrell, Sir Martin.  Patricia Sellers Interviews…  The Hidden Persuader.  January 27, 2004. here.

8 thoughts on “Madison Avenue and the doppelganger strategy

  1. Tom Asacker

    “I believe that nothing manufactures brand meanings like a 30 second spot.”

    Not even aesthetics or the brand experience; à la Starbucks, Apple, JetBlue, Nokia, etc.?

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  3. Piers Fawkes

    Tom, if you look at Apple’s marketing efforts (beyond the products), they appear quite anti-trend: TV advertising, billboard posters, no ‘conversation marketing’, no blogging, no-open source systems

  4. Tom Asacker

    I understand Piers. So do you mean to imply that Apple’s traditional marketing execution had a greater impact on brand meaning – and thus sales – than the design (look, feel and simplicity) of the device, iTunes, etc.? Grant?

  5. Grant

    Tom, very good question (as usual). I think Starbucks came up on such a powerful cultural trend (the siren call of the Pacific Northwest) that it could achieve altitude without advertising, and then sustain it with their famously well managed retail experience. But tell me this, if you and I had many millions of dollars to invest in a coffee house chain, and no cultural trend to drive it, would we dare make the investment without advertising to build the brand and the space? Jetblue is interesting because at the moment they are funding things out of the good will of their employees, and this is a potent meaning maker, but I believe ads are a more reliable meaning maker. Apple has advertising of course, but they have demonstrated all the brand benefits to be drawn from a charismatic CEO, and stellar innovation and design. I am looking forward to consulting for the start up that comes up with a perfect combination: cultural trend like Starbucks, design like Apple, CEO charisma like Apple, or, formerly, GE,
    retail like Apple or Starbucks, actually Apple and Starbucks would be an interesting combo, staff like Jetblue…Thanks, Grant

    Piers, nice point, these guys throw off so much charisma, we give them credit for innovative marketing, even when they are in fact quite conservative. Ah, great brands are blinding! Thanks, Grant

    Tom, I think Apple managed to get several dimensions going at once, and this is a measure of great marketing, no? Thanks, Grant

  6. Stéphane

    Bonjour Grant,

    Very interesting post…
    It is my longest e-mail to this blog, therefore my English limitations will show even more.

    After The Fall of Adverting and the Rise of PR (Ries 2002), The End of Advertising as we know it (Zyman 2003), Life after the 30-second Spot (Jaffe 2004), etc. we can ask ourselves: are we doing the same kind of forecast than “Internet will kill TV” or “TV will make Radio obsolete”?

    I think that PVRs and the massive advertising clutter definitively change the way we should do TV advertising. I totally agree with you, Grant, there’s nothing like TV (or Internet video spots) to manufactures brand meanings. The question is less if TV can carry brand meanings than if TV is still a mass media. The teens spend more time on the net than on TV; many specialize Channel erodes popular TV Channel audience; PVR, iTunes and other on-demand TV provide the most popular shows without advertising interruption…

    What many TV-advertising-bashers forget is that people still tune the Super Bowl more for the ads than the game. (People in Montreal even pirate their dish to get the US spots) In that regards, I think that Madison & Vine (Donaton 2004) is an interesting book (too long, but still interesting…). The tie between advertising and entertainment is more and more preeminent in the media planning of major clients.

    On Lovemarks amazing sells:
    Because the advertising in the 80’s was all about creative (even if often irrelevant), many ad agencies business leaders are ex-creative. They are not that much ready to R.I.P. TV advertising and they like to read anything that could reassure them that advertising is still a creative driven business. Lovemarks sold so many copies because it is one of the rare optimistic points of view on our industry. Even if I found the book less miserable than you did, Grant, I totally agree about its poorness strategic contribution. Reading it make one feels like he can seek the brand-nirvana and that it’s every man responsibility to preach the good word on advertising vitality.
    Having in your hands a true Lovemarks (a brand that your customers will choose despite reason) is like 50 years of marriage: you realize when you are there (I guess) that you did something right, being yourself along the way is more important than the quest of reaching the status.

    On Ad Agencies:
    It might seem ridiculous but ad agencies are really poor when it comes to do their self-branding. Like many clients they have, they are not able to choose one clear position and they try to be relevant to every targets, with the risk of reaching none. Ad agencies managers still use the 50’s strategy of giving to clients an account exec that doesn’t rock the boat too much. Please listen to the client, make him comfortable in the agency… Don’t dress like him too much, he might think he can do the job himself instead of hiring us.

    Many Madison giants are weak, not only because the advertising business is in a shift that many have a hard time to embrace, but also because those same branding gurus didn’t do nothing for their own brands. In a rising competitive market (with less geographical constraints then ever before) the giants might have to do like Coke, and offer specific solutions (with an entire brand profile) for specific targets.

    With agencies that do whatever the clients ask, without concern for their own brands… there is no surprise that businesses are less willing to pay the strategic/thinking fees and turn themselves to small creative shops around the world.

    Despite all, I’m positive that TV ads aren’t dead, that the customer’s capacity of skipping the ads will force clients & agencies to do better ads, and that branding will more and more tie itself with design and entertainment.

  7. Jason

    Hi Grant & everyone else –
    I think the Doppelganger theory is really interesting, thanks for putting it out there.

    However my take isn’t quite as cynical as yours (don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of cynicism for the industry). I agree that the lack of specific philosophies about how communication works is due to agencies trying to be adaptive, but not always because people are trying to emulate their clients.

    I think (or at least I’d like to think) it also stems from trying to be adaptive to ever-changing brand-consumer-culture-media relationships. Because of that constant change, today’s approach might not work tomorrow. And not only is the world changing, but if part of the challenge of branding is getting people to see a brand in a fresh new light, then we need to always be rethinking how to do that. To take one example, Disruption can be a great tool, but once everybody is ‘reframing the category’ isn’t that not very disruptive anymore?

    So maybe that’s why agencies don’t often commit to brands being build one particular way – perhaps good agencies try to be schooled in many possible ways of building brands, to always think up more, and to pick the right approach for the brand and the moment in time. It’s not being all things to all people, it’s being adaptive enough to understand culture, consumers, brands and media are constantly evolving and so problems require evolving solutions. An agency who always used the same creative look for every client wouldn’t last very long; why should strategy be any different?

    Your ultimate point is a good one, though – if this truly is what we’re up to, we probably need to get better at articulating why not being married to a specific philosophy doesn’t mean we have no philosophy at all.


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