John Griffiths: “The traditional agency model is changing and agencies are slimming down”

I’ve known John Griffiths for more than 10 years now, having the privilege of taking one of the first interviews he gave to the Romanian media. He has more than 30 years of experience as planner and creative thinker and a great background as trainer and speaker. His main professional skills are customer experience, insight generation, market research, facilitation, use of digital channels, working with management teams.  He is always a great inspiration, therefore, on my latest trip to London, we met once again and had a great talk. Part of it I am glad to be able to share with you today.

Romanita Oprea


When and how was your first interaction with the Romanian marcom industry?

I was separately emailed by Costin Radu and Elena Ionita. He was trying to find a book about account planning. And she was asking for advice about her advertising studies. They were just crossing over from being at the university to their first jobs in the advertising business. When they were working at Leo Burnett, the planning head Razvan Matasel invited me to visit and run training about Account Planning for the IAA. And I went on to run training for Leo Burnett and Sister. Later on that year I returned to run more training for GMP and BBDO. It was a very significant time because Romania was about to join the EU in 2007 and no one knew the impact on the advertising industry. I still have the interviews!

Since then, you came many times in Romania as a speaker at different industry events or for internal workshops organized by companies or agencies. How do you believe that the Romanian marcom industry has changed during these years? 

Well, the economic expansion has been dramatic, so I am sure that had a major effect on volume of advertising even with the economic crisis back in 2009. And as often happens in developing markets, the levels of response to advertising were often dramatic – so businesses invested in advertising expecting that it would directly drive sales. When I first visited Romania advertising was dominated by television. Whereas now the digital revolution has changed everything. What I noticed was a series of ads where clients would be encouraged to drop their previous advertising strategy and try the next killer advertising medium. I notice that Effies has become prominent – which is great news because advertising has to be measurable to be useful, so I hope there is more accountability now.

What about the UK one?

The UK is a developed advertising market with lots of options for marketers to reach people. The arrival of digital increased the choices available and a lot of money went into digital without the culture of measurement to determine if it got returns.  Prophets of doom warned that traditional advertising was finished. It wasn’t. The large agencies eventually bought up the digital ones and carried on much the same. In the last year we have had both Y&R and JWT effectively taken over by response agencies (rather than digital ones). And Ogilvy bringing all its brands together under one roof. So the traditional agency model is changing and agencies are slimming down. At the same time, clients are taking a lot of digital work in house and building up their own creative capability.

What pieces of advice would you still give it at this time?

Follow the money! Whether it has moved to Facebook, or to client companies or stayed in the agencies.  I think it is hard to plan for a career in advertising because there is so much change and the advertising business in the UK at least has not kept pace in developing people. So, re-invent yourself and your skills constantly. And don’t expect your company to pay for it.

More and more Romanian professionals are leaving the country to work in agencies in Europe or even USA. Why do you believe this is happening right now?

This is a difficult subject for me. One reason I kept coming back to train Romanian advertising people was to help to support the development of planning in Romania so people didn’t feel they needed to leave. I certainly never tried to persuade anyone to leave. The reason for people going abroad is quite simple for me. Which is the pool of people entering advertising in Romania represented a tiny percentage of the population who were highly educated and very creative. I am not trying to flatter.  I thought the caliber of those I first met in Romania was way better than London which has a wider pool of people not of the same quality. Often, those who left Romania got really great jobs abroad. That for me is a good indication that those with that level of talent will flourish in Europe and in the US. It’s very hard to tell talented people they should stay at home if the opportunities are not the same.

What pieces of advice would you give to those interested in leaving a good position in an agency in Romania and going in the UK?

Well I am not sure I would tell even a British person to join a UK ad agency in 2019 with the mess that the UK is in! So I don’t want to give Romanians advice. Except to say that our government is promising you can stay and work here as long as you arrive before March 29th! The future of the UK advertising industry is not particularly secure because the work particularly for international clients flows around the world. So perhaps try somewhere else for a year until things settle down. If they settle down..

How will Brexit impact the advertising industry in the UK, in your opinion? 

It really depends on whether people stay in London. My sense is that advertising in London has attracted people from outside of the UK. If they don’t feel secure and move elsewhere then London’s creative reputation is going to fall.  Whether Britain remains an international advertising center, I really can’t say.

What do you believe to be the main qualities of a great planner and why?

They have to be smart and analytical. They have to be creative and intuitive. And the really good ones are good with people. They are collaborative and persuasive. The main reason is because planners are not given authority the way account handlers and senior creatives are. Planners have to take other people with them in spite of all the egos and the politics. So you need evidence. You need to be able to make creative jumps. And if people don’t like or trust you they won’t co-operate with you.

What about the main misconceptions?

Planners tend to be smart people. If they represent the geek in the room ultimately they become ineffective – they do the ‘clever’ thing – but people don’t take them seriously. If you hear criticisms of planners you hear they are theoretical, nobody understands them – its intellect which is not helping the team.

The other misconception now that many planners have been rebadged as strategists is that you can do strategy without a deep understanding of the way in which the advertising channels work.  Now there are so many channels it is really challenging because there is so much to know. But you can’t just make advertising and pour it down 20 different pipes to the customer. Advertising is about great execution – not just a great idea.

You are also teaching. How are the UK students seeing the marcomm industry right now? How different is their perspective than it used to be some years ago?

For the last 3 years I was mentoring creatives in an advertising school working to get their first job in an ad agency after lots of placements. They were developing a wide range of skills including coding and film making so they could deliver creative solutions that were not conventional ads.  I think this is partly because it was the best way to get hired because of the narrowness of many creatives working in agencies. But the negative result was that often they went and got jobs outside of advertising because their skillset became broader. It’s a big issue for the industry now. The brightest students don’t want to go into advertising. That wasn’t true a generation ago. So the more skills creatives acquire the more opportunities they get to work somewhere else.

Do you see the same passion or not? Why?

Advertising works in cycles – I remember how excited I was the first time I came to Romania because the advertising I saw was original and different. We had a similar time in the UK in the 1970s when television advertising was a new creative medium. There has always been great advertising and terrible advertising but sometimes it feels as though there is very little really brave or exciting work. One reason is that the creatives are watching too much advertising themselves so are producing ideas which connect to advertising but not with very much else.  Great advertising points beyond itself and gets the engagement because those seeing it can’t easily dismiss it as just advertising.  The focus on behavior change hasn’t been helpful either because it has reduced ad effectiveness to a technical exercise. There is more to advertising than click generation.

How would you characterize the UK advertising scene at this moment?

Well, I had a golden opportunity to review it this last May because I was a shortlisting judge for the IPA effectiveness awards. So I got to see the best of the best and the evidence that this advertising works.  There is still a lot of good work being done. But there is also a lot of rubbish.  Response is down because the internet is mostly streaming commercial messages of one kind or another.  So people are learning to filter it out.   When I started in advertising there was a limit to how much advertising you were exposed to relative to content. Now there is no limit.

In this digital and technological revolution scene is the important of research growing even more or not? Why?

The big theme in research now is automation. Reducing costs so we can gather data without the human cost of gathering it. That has made research quicker and a lot cheaper. I am not sure it is more insightful.  The assumption is that if you can measure and track customer behavior you understand the customer better. That is only partly true. The missing link is the customers’ own understanding of their own intentions and behavior. Even if they are not reliable! That for me is the missing part.

What are the biggest mistakes a marketer can do these days?

Thinking the internet is free and if you go viral or make a campaign in real time you will save money and get sales for nothing. It doesn’t work!  Close to this is spending the budget on making ads and not making sure enough people see them. Also trying to get your ROI back within weeks when we know the longer term effects of advertising can give you a return for years – brand building matters just as much in the digital age. But marketers have to invest in brand building.  It doesn’t happen by accident.

What do you believe to be the main trends in advertising in 2019?

A reasonable question in December 2018, but not a simple one!

Continuing deep anxiety about the future of the advertising industry. Over emphasis on the latest technique or star performer as a magician who can make miracles.  When I read Campaign all that is talked about is other advertising people. The only topic in advertising that matters is what ordinary people think about advertising.  We don’t seem to notice or care at the moment.  The digital giants are trying to clean up their act but it will take longer than 2019 to do that. And Amazon will take over the world without advertising!

You also launched a book – 98% Pure Potato. Tell us a little more about the ideas behind it. How was that experience for you?

I learned how much work it is to write a book! It was about the first ever account planners who were in the earliest departments which opened 50 years ago – this is an anniversary year.  It taught me the fundamental ideas behind account planning and what made planning a worldwide success.  Planners have got everywhere.  But what I have also realized was how difficult it is to persuade advertising people that you can learn from the past.  I didn’t mean to write a history book but that is the way I think the book was received. Even if the lessons are just as relevant today.

Do you intend to write more books?

Yes I plan to write myself out of the building! I have a memoir written which I want to publish. There are a couple of titles about the techniques of running workshops. And the book which I think will be hardest to write is how to improve the quality of ideas travelling through our organizations. Everyone talks about social media. No one seems to think about how ideas travel socially inside the workplace. So I would like to write about that. Those are the business books. When they are written there is all sorts of other topics I want to write about but that is outside of advertising.