11/04/2010 03:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Ad Industry Needs More Accountability

The advertising industry is like a stockbroker.

When a stockbroker makes decisions that pay big dividends, the broker likes to take credit for his genius. But if losses ensue, one too many broker will point to market conditions, the "market cycle" or unforeseen circumstances to explain their losses.

But they can't have it both ways. They must either accept that all losses and gains are a result of market conditions, natural cycles or unforeseen circumstances or be as willing at admit blindness as often as they do prescience.

Advertising, as an industry, suffers from this same disconnection of logic. When a client's business booms after a campaign -- it is always as a result of the advertising. But when there is no impact or negative impact, then it is often because of marketing conditions, poor client decision making or some other unforeseen circumstances. Except for infomercials, few are the number of clients whose businesses are ENTIRELY driven by advertising. Advertising is a piece of a puzzle and an agency can not pick and choose when their work has value. They must either accept partial responsibility for any outcome or none.

Which consistent line of logic an agency chooses to follow is up to them, one is not better than the other. For those that agency that chooses to have no accountability -- they can focus their resources and efforts more on the messaging and the creative product and allow themselves to be a tool in a marketing manager's shed. A good marketing executive will now how to use his or her agency and will accept accountability for the direction they give their creative partners. Many design firms do this a lot better than ad agencies. They hold out their product as the best product they can design, but make no guarantees as to the bottom-line impact their designs may make. They accept that they are a part of a bigger system and operate as such.

However, most agencies don't like that role and prefer to get credit when things go well for a client. Again, this is not better or worse strategy than the former, but to accept credit one must also be accountable when things don't go well -- something few if any like to do.

The evolution of the ad business further proves this avoidance of accountability. Just as the police need to constantly upgrade their radars to catch speeding motorists, so too do speeding motorists need to constantly upgrade their radar detectors to avoid being caught by the police. What results is an arms race of which the only winners are the manufacturers of the radar guns and their detectors -- a product that really should only be bought once, but as a result of the arms race needs to be upgraded every year. The ad industry has followed the same path

For years, advertising enjoyed relative immunity from the arms race. When there were only network stations, the problem of channel surfing didn't exist. Now, with so many choices, advertising faces the problem of holding a viewer's attention during commercial breaks. The ad industry puts the pressure on the TV industry to produce quality programming to hold a viewer's attention. But why is the ad industry not accepting some of the responsibility? Should not their advertising also contribute to entertaining a viewer and holding their attention? To answer no would mean that an advertiser doesn't care about what viewers (a.k.a. customers) have to watch as mach as they care what they want to say. Not to go off on a tangent, but how can any company claim to care about customers if they don't care about them at every point they engage with them. Imagine if an agency could brag to a network that their ads are so good it will actually help prevent channel flipping. That is a very high standard of quality for sure.

TiVo and other digital recording devices have confounded advertisers. The ad industry sees the technology as a threat to their product. However, I, like almost every other consumer on the planet, sometimes rewind my DVR to re-watch my favorite commercials. I love seeing the next jab Mac will take at PC. I can't wait to see what Geico will do next (I've watched that woodchuck ad so often... I love it). If agencies accepted more responsibility to make ads that people actually wanted to watch (which is different from performing well in focus-groups), then the DVR would be an advertiser's best friend, not enemy. Reach and frequency numbers could go up without having to buy more media.

The final example is what ad agencies are doing online. When advertising plays before a video streamed over the internet, viewers are prevented from fast-forwarding or skipping the ad. It's like that scene in Clockwork Orange when Malcolm McDowell is forced to watch disturbing images while his eyes lids are held open. In an effort to force people to watch their "valuable message" advertisers are simultaneously infuriating and disturbing their customers. On sites with large video libraries, news sites for example, customers are often forced to watch the same ad over and over and over each time they click watch a different clip. Even if they don't want to watch the whole clip, they have to watch the whole ad first. I, for one, will not visit one of the network news sites anymore because I can't stand the thought of being forced to watch an ad before every clip. With perfect irony, the advertising is actually hurting the viewer experience of the media platform that accepted money to run the ad. As for the strategic merit, yes a viewer can be forced to watch an ad, but they can't be forced to pay attention. That little delicacy can only happen if the advertising is entertaining or compelling enough to hold someone's attention.

If agencies were to accept more accountability for the quality of their work, then they would be only too happy to let people skip or fast-forward the ad if they wanted to. Instead of forcing viewers to watch, they could measure the stickiness of the creative. Any agency that could prove that consumers choose to watch their advertising is an agency a great deal of clients would want to hire.

Alas -- not until an agency decides to accept full responsibility for their value of their work do they earn the right to claim any value whatsoever. And the same goes for marketers. If their agency wants to get paid a performance-bonus, then they should be willing to accept and under-performance penalty. I know most agencies would never agree to that... which is fine... then they should accept no accountability at all and just be the best producer of creative they can possibly be.

And in the greatest twist of irony of all, the ad industry has spent years figuring out ways to force me to watch its advertising yet I am unable to force the ad industry to read this.