Friday, February 18, 2011

Up the Organisation

This week's post I have borrowed with gratitude from Robert Townsend, erstwhile Avis rent a car CEO, best-selling author and Theory Y evangelist.

There are so many great things to say about Robert 'super client' Townsend that it's hard to know where to start. In the piece I've lifted here, he talks about working with DDB on the famous 'We Try Harder' strategy. 

Reading and re-reading this stuff (as I have done many times) it's hard to see how anyone could argue against it. But in my time I've never met a client that even comes close to this level of straight up and down respect for their agency. Or, arguably, any agency that deserves it.

Fire the whole advertising department and your old agency. Then go get the best new agency you can. And concentrate your efforts on making it fun for them to create candid, effective advertising for you. Unless you’ve done this the odds favor that you have a bunch of bright people working at cross purposes to produce — at best — mediocre ads. 

We started at Avis asking a few people for a list of the hottest agencies. Then we called on the creative heads of those agencies and tried to interest them in the rent a car business. Ultimately we stumbled on the right question: “How do we get five million dollars of advertising for one million dollars?” (Our competition had five dollars for each dollar we had.)

Finally, Bill Bernbach heard the question and answered: “If you want five times the impact, give us ninety days to learn enough about your business to apply our skills, and then run every ad we write where we tell you to run it. Our people work to see how effective their ideas are. But most clients put our ads through a succession of assistant V.P.s and V.P.s of advertising, marketing, and legal until we hardly recognize the remnants. If you promise to run them just as we write them, you’ll have every art director and copywriter in my shop moonlighting on your account.”

We shook hands on it.

The rest is history. Our internal sales growth rate increased from 10 per cent to 35 per cent in the next couple of years.

Moral: don’t hire a master to paint you a masterpiece then assign a roomful of schoolboy-artists to look over his shoulder and suggest improvements.

To reinforce this extraordinary charge into the rational unknown, Townsend even drafted a client/agency manifesto which he hung in everyone's office both at DDB and Avis. This wonderful piece of straight-thinking boldness is often erroneously credited to Bill Bernbach but it was written by THE CLIENT.

It went like this:

Avis Rent A Car
Advertising Philosophy

1. Avis will never know as much about advertising as DDB, and DDB will never know as much about the rent a car business as Avis.
2. The purpose of the advertising is to persuade the frequent business renter (whether on a business trip, a vacation or renting and extra car at home) to try Avis.
3. A serious attempt will be made to create advertising with five times the effectiveness of the competition's advertising.
4. To this end, Avis will approve or disapprove, not try to improve, ads which are submitted. Any changes suggested by Avis must be grounded on a material operating defect (a wrong uniform for example).
5. To this end, DDB will only submit for approval those ads which they as an agency recommend. They will not "see what Avis thinks of that one."
6. Media selection should be the primary responsibility of DDB. However, DDB is expected to take the initiative to get guidance from Avis in weighting of markets or special situations, particularly in those areas where cold numbers do not indicate the real picture. Media judgement are open to discussion. The conviction should prevail. Compromises should be avoided.

I was tempted to underline what I think are the most important parts of this. But there's nothing here I don't agree with. Would it be possible now to start all client/agency relationships off with a manifesto like this?

Anyone not willing to sign up? And why?

'Up the Organisation — how to stop the Corporation from stifling people and strangling profits.' by Robert Townsend was published in 1970 by Fawcett Crest Books. Sadly it is now out of print but well worth trying to get a copy second hand.) Many thanks to Tim O'Donnell for pointing me in its direction.


  1. Great post, Kate (and thanks for the shout-out.) I bought Up The Organization at a thrift store for a quarter because it had a beautiful cloth cover -- a pyramid of Poster Bodoni on a grey background, it's still an all-time favorite. Years later I actually bothered to flip through it and was completely seduced by its humor, insight and astonishing lack of bullshit. We need more people with that kind of courage of their convictions.

    I couldn't find an image online of my beloved cover, but I did find these great images of Townsend from LIFE magazine -- toppling the corporate structure.,486&imgurl=e6e8d9d33ef914c3


  2. Thanks Tim, so glad you liked the post.

    I'm kind of obsessed with identifying the obstacles to this kind of in-your-face sense.

    Why, really, is it so rare?