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It's Hobbes Versus Locke in 21st Century Ad Biz

Posted by: David Kiley on July 31, 2009


By Jon Bond
Bond is co-chairman and co-founder of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners

When I was in high school, we learned that one of the biggest debates in the 19th century was the debate over whether man is essentially good or evil.

I never remember who was on which side, but the two philosophies were authored by two radically different men, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

Even though I rarely paid attention in high school, this concept has stuck with me.

You see it in pop culture all the time. Star Wars is based on it. The dark side is nothing more than the belief that man is evil, hence we should grab whatever we can and be done with it. It is cynism taken to the “nth” degree, and a self fulfilling prophecy because when you treat people like they are going to screw you, you incent them to do just that.

Hence the famous slogan: the beatings will continue until morale improves.

All of which brings me to the topic at hand, advertising. During the process of pitching new business, the lifeblood of our business, the prospective client inevitably asks, “Tell me Jon, what in your eyes makes a good client?” This is the kind of dangerously loaded question that sports stars are taught to dodge with cliches. You know, like, “I’m just happy to be here, and that the good Lord has blessed me.” In our world, the appropriate answer is to mutter something about “partnerships” and “give and take,” and all this kind of syrupy hoopla that shouldn’t get you in trouble.

The truth is that if you are a good person, you are a good client.

Who makes good clients? Your parents, if you are lucky. If you are a lying son of a gun, you will be a bad client. If you are an honest, good person with reasonable self esteem and your parents didn’t beat you too much, you will be a good client.

All of which brings me back to Hobbes and Locke. Today, clients are struggling with how to pay their agencies. They want to pay based on results, and this is a very good thing. A good, confident agency accepts this premise.

Two dramatically different models are emerging, each championed by a mega-huge global client I won’t name. Not just any mega huge clients either, but by arguably the two most important and influential clients in advertising history.

Both clients are about paying for results, yet they are in every other way diametrically oppossed. The reason, I believe, is that the two companies hold opposing beliefs about ad agencies themselves.

Company A believes that agencies are essentially good: that they care about their clients; doing the right things for them; their business results; about the welfare of the individual clients themselves.

Client B believes that agencies are self-interested, incompetent, disposable, and rarely generate enough value to pay for their
(perceived) hefty fees. And you know, both are right.

Historically, each of these companies has treated their agencies in opposite ways, one as a true and valued partner, and the other as
a low level supplier. Each has gotten exactly the results they expected.

So, as the media and compensation models in the ad business quickly evolve, the Hobbes versus Locke debate rages in our industry the same way it did in the 19th century. The winner will determine if this is a business I still want to be in. I am rooting for Hobbes. Or is it Locke. I never did remember which was which.

Reader Comments

Denise Lee Yohn

August 2, 2009 2:25 PM

there is a large body of research which shows that students of teachers who think the best of their students(e.g., think they're gifted, expect them to perform well, etc.) perform better than students of teachers who have less positive perceptions/expectations of their students.

i wonder if a similar dynamic has an effect on agency/client relationships? -- that is, clients who think the best of their agencies enjoy better performing agencies.

and perhaps, the reverse is true as well? that is, agencies who have more positive perceptions/expectations of their clients end up with better clients? hmmmm...

frank Loweser

August 3, 2009 8:37 AM

I have found that the worst clients tend to be those steeped in ales or finance experience. They view the ad agency in parallel with the paper clip vendor. Not always, but often.

It' not hard to determine the value and importance of brand, and getting brand right. Hell....look at how good some of GM's products have gotten, though sales are held back by brand image, not product quality or design so much.

I feel your pain about wondering if you want to stay in this biz.


August 4, 2009 7:50 AM

Good post...i m student of and i found your blog very interesting.
Thanks for brilliant post

Jim Seybert

August 18, 2009 11:33 AM

Mr Bond,
As a consultant working with companies to help them think differently, I've had the honor to have as a client a medium sized ad agency.
Your commentary on good v evil is spot on, AND it is also true in the reverse.
Agencies come in two styles - those who see the client as an intelligent and important partner in the process of building success, and those who see the client as a bungling dolt who doesn't know a good idea when it hits them in the head.
In my experience, the former will generally enjoy longer and more profitable relationships, while the latter will rack up a long list of clients for whom they HAVE worked.
Oh - and I'm with you on forgetting who was whom in the Locke v Hobbes debate.

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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