The Last Argument of Kings

Ultima ratio regum, or “the last argument of kings,” was engraved on the French army’s cannons during Louis XIV’s regime. Today, that same threat applies to a one-sided view of winning that troubles the marketing business.

In the advertising world, offline is pitted against online in a struggle for relevance and creative specialness. Yet this conflict may be less about creativity than other relevant issues.

Think about advertising holistically, either online or off-, and you realize it’s all the same kind of work. Developing effective advertising is a learned and valued expertise.

Think about advertising’s evolution, refinements, and branches of discipline, including general advertising, direct response, public relations, and so on. Why should online be any different than these other areas of expertise?

First, let’s examine the progression and causes of conflicts between offline and online.

Offline agencies, if they’re good and most of the big ones are, make a lot of money. It’s not a devious plan. It’s taken big offline agencies a lot of time to refine their processes to build successful businesses.

Online makes money, too, increasingly more each day. As online ad fidelity improves, the medium starts looking more like advertising. Sounds like a growth industry, doesn’t it?

Yet there’s folly in this epic drama’s plot.

It takes time and sweat to create an online ad, site, widget, online embarrassment, or whatever else is out there in the crazy Webosphere. Dollar by dollar, hour by hour, the medium isn’t as profitable as offline and is hard work. Yet I sense that online advertising remains in the low-low percentages of revenue for advertising behemoths.

But apart from agency money and toil, what about clients’ money and how it’s spent on online? Right now, the average client online spend is 7 percent to 15 percent of its overall budget. Not much in terms of the overall picture, but I remember when 3 percent was high.

Averages can deceive. There’s no steady percentage that clients follow from quarter to quarter for online. In fact, if you charted the trend, the graphic would look like spending for the Christmas tree industry — an eternal saw tooth.

Online is as much of a strategy in the overall marketing mix as it is a periodic, ambush marketing tactic. Hence, the ebb and flow of budgets.

This pattern may change over time, but not in the way we expect. In the future, a marketer might decide a flexible, multipronged use of all marketing vehicles that change in spend from quarter to quarter, month to month, and day to day could be the battlefield of the next decade.

Aim big. Use different guns. And keep moving. That may be the new battle credo.

If that occurs, fighting at agencies over off- and online budgets will be moot. While budgets may be tough to hold on to in marketing communications, that may change in coming years due to an assortment of channel options and if cooler marketing heads prevail.

If we can all just get along, everyone and every medium will have a role in the marketing mix. The only difference is some may have to sit on the bench longer than they did in the past. As for me, I could use the break.

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