Return on Illusion

[April 23, 2010]

In good times and bad, if you skulk the halls of Advertising, you’re liable to hear the acronym “R.O.I.” It’s trotted out at many different occasions and frequently embroidered into an agency’s mission statement. It’s the mantra of every COO who believes great creative can be stamped out on cookie sheets like gingerbread men.

But like a lot of other business concepts, R.O.I. is relative. Sure, project managers can use the favored calculus of the moment to keep cost-obsessed clients happy. Using feature-rich software, it’s easier than ever to promise the impossible. Before long, you, too, believe in phantom “efficiencies,” time-savings that can only occur if your client reads between the lines and follows every step of the agreed-upon schedule to the letter.

Expand your budget for staying on schedule…
Should you live to be 1000, however, you’ll never see a day when budgets and schedules, planned out to the last gnat’s whisker, bear more than a loose relationship to reality. In fact, the problems that derail many a project, sending costs up, often occur in the first three days.

Say for example, a major “efficiency” has been found, specifically, in the retrofitting and recycling of existing Web copy. What the schedule fails to reflect, time and again, is that the existing copy not only does not meet professional standards, but is utterly incompatible with the stated aims of the project.

A skilled Copy creative, however, can work wonders.

With eight to sixteen extra hours—working off hours, nights, weekends—even the steamiest pile of copy detritus can be whipped into something that’s at least readable. Whether this makes for a healthy workplace or a model of staff-development, is of course, another issue. Meanwhile, the scheduling software purrs contentedly past another illusory milestone. Doubly so, if the client compounds the travesty by instituting a rate card system with cost valuations that haven’t been adjusted for inflation since the 70s.

…and schedule some quality time with Quality.
At the end of this process—the inevitably mediocre result is launched into digital space. Why “inevitably?” Because the foundations of success were eroded from the start. Like a delicious filet mignon, motivating copy can’t be pasted together from scraps you wouldn’t feed to your pet ferret. And when the results are disappointing, the cry of “R.O.I.” rises over the top of every cubicle from here to Albuquerque.

The client is unhappy with the “R,” and misses the point entirely. Contrary to received wisdom, the most important letter in the R.O.I. equation is “I.” Clients who refuse to invest the time and money to earn extraordinary results will never attain them. COOs and project managers who enable a client’s addiction to unrealistic expectations are responsible for the outcome.

Yet the damage to the client is only part of the issue. What really smarts is the damage these false accommodations do to the agency business. If the decades since the “Mad Men” era have seen a steady erosion of our reputation, it hasn’t really been due to reported excesses or the occasional outburst of eye-popping bad taste.

It’s because the integrity of our product has been whittled away from the inside. Painful as the alternative may be, every time we participate in the fiction that quality work can be achieved without quality input, we erode our reputation even further. So if boosting R.O.I. is the signature tenet of your agency’s business model, it’s time you realized you have a vested interest in demanding a meaningful investment—of time, money and vision—from your client.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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