Tim-Williams---Photo-1August 30, 2011 | By Tim Williams

In my recent book, Positioning for Professionals: How Professional Knowledge Firms Can Differentiate Their Way to SuccessI make some fairly big assumptions about the advertising business with which I’ve been so closely associated.  By referring to advertising people as “professionals” and advertising agencies as “professional knowledge firms,” I’m stating my belief that advertising and marketing is – or at least should be – a “profession” in the same league with law, accounting, or architectural firms.

This is actually an important question for our business.  A lot of practitioners feel that because they have devoted their careers to this discipline, that they are “professionals” in the sense that they know their jobs well.  They are professionals, not amateurs.

Is advertising a profession?Professional standards

But the true definition of a profession presents a much more rigorous standard than just being good at your job.

For starters, professionals are accredited.  Lawyers must pass a state bar, and accountants must pass rigorous exams to earn the title CPA.  They, along with doctors and architects, are licenses.

Second, the professions require continuing education.  CPAs must prove 130 hours of professional development each year to maintain their accreditation.

Third, the professions are based on the study and application of science.  While all professions could ultimately be considered a combination of both art and science (doctors and litigators in particular fiercely defend this position), the professions themselves are rooted in rigorous study and application of research.  While judgment is part of the job, this professional judgment is augmented by a body of evidence that is constantly updated.

Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana believes there’s another equally important aspect of professionalism: the adherence to “higher aims” than self-interest or economic benefit.  Stanford’s Jeffry Pfeffer believes that the professions have another defining feature: a specialized body of knowledge that practitioners are obliged to apply in their daily work.

More science along with the art

Given the above standards, is advertising or marketing a profession?  Not yet.  But it should be.  The IPA (Institute of Practitioners of Advertising) in the U.K. has established an accreditation program they call the CPD (Continuous Professional Development), awarding certificates to agencies and individuals who adhere to the program’s standards. This is an excellent model for other agency associations to consider.

To be respected as a profession, the advertising and marketing business must take a much more evidence-based approach.  Pfeffer observes that a good deal of other organizations and business make rigorous use of evidence and data.  For example, the U.S. military regularly conducts what they call “After-Action Reviews.”  (My colleague Ed Kless has written about the wisdom of this practice in business organizations.)  Hospitals hold what they call “mortality and morbidity” reviews.

My agency friends will remind me that their firms are in the practice of holding “post mortems” after a lost new business pitch.  But to mirror the behavior of professional organizations, these post mortems must be held regularly and continually for current clients and campaigns, not just to assess why you didn’t win an account.  The point is that to be seen as true professionals, our business needs to be much more focused on cataloguing and learning from our successes and failures.

This isn’t to diminish the foundational role “art” or judgment plays in our business.  It’s just an acknowledgement that after over a hundred years’ experience with modern marketing, advertising agencies should be a lot more conversant and knowledgeable about what works, what doesn’t work, and why.

Less order takers, more outcome creators

With the sophisticated metrics made available by technology, we should be a lot less focused on deliverables and a lot more focused on outcomes.  The Effies are, of course, all about outcomes.  And the databank produced by the IPA’s effectiveness awards constitutes an impressive “evidenced-based” body of knowledge that agencies around the world should study.  Thankfully, the business of analytics is emerging as a serious agency discipline, and can go a long way in establishing and maintaining credibility with client organizations.

Unfortunately, rather than identifying and executing against outcomes, agencies often hunker down in production-factory mode, filling orders for procurement departments.  Not only is this type of work increasingly “commoditized” (meaning widely available at low cost), it pulls agencies away from their more important role as informed, valued advisors.

So count me in as a supporter of the idea of marketing as a profession.  If you happen to agree, what are your thoughts about what it’s going to take to get us there?

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