Sep 10

Dell: in search of the creative grail

My my, isn’t this a shocker:
Dell is out hunting for a new agency.

As their spokesperson explains, “we think it’s appropriate to continuously review our creative.”

At some point, Dell may figure out that the idea is to continuously improve their creative, not just review it. Despite a parade of agencies in the last 10-15 years, their marketing efforts remain continuously forgettable.

An anonymous industry sage once observed: Clients always get the advertising they deserve.

That’s certainly the case here.

As a long line of psychologically damaged creatives will attest, it ain’t easy working with Dell. Campaigns that end up running are typically a faint echo of the original idea, ground down by second-guessing and never-ending revisions.

In my opinion, it’s because Dell lacks one essential ingredient: a passion for great marketing.

The tone inside every company is set at the top. And Dell has a leader who is driven by efficiency, not imagination. Quantity is Job #1. To Dell, selling to a customer takes priority over engaging a customer.

So, year after year, Dell’s agencies deliver what is demanded of them — creative that lacks in heart and rarely takes risks. In other words, Dell gets exactly the marketing it deserves.

I don’t imagine too many are surprised that Dell is sniffing around for a new agency, now that their three-year, $4.5 billion deal with monolithic holding company WPP is about to expire. You may recall, WPP started the relationship by creating Enfatico, a global agency devoted to Dell, with 1,000 people across 13 offices. That lasted all of a year. Then most of the Dell responsibilities were shifted to other WPP agencies — with no visible change in the work as far as I can tell.

(Uh-oh. I’m having some kind of weird flashback. A vague recollection that I actually had something to do with Enfatico. That’s not even possible. Is it? Whatever, back to our story…)

Dell will be listening to creative pitches from a number of agencies — including the WPP agencies they currently use.

Personally, I’m always amazed when clients do this. It’s as if Dell is saying to WPP, “Ya know, honey, there’s something missing in our marriage. So here’s my plan. I’m going to sleep around a bit, and if I can’t find anything better, I’ll keep living with you.”

The fact is, agencies invest a huge amount of time and energy in learning a client’s business. Making a switch is expensive. So my advice to clients is: If you think your agency is talented, work with them. If you think they’re not, fire their butts. Walking the middle ground just frustrates everyone.

If Dell is serious about improving creativity, however, they’ll fix themselves before they fix their agency roster. Since Michael Dell is missing the marketing gene, he needs to hire someone who’s got it — preferably someone who has been spectacularly successful elsewhere. He needs to give him/her the authority to streamline Dell’s sprawling marketing machine and make final decisions. He might also make more compelling products, but that’s another story.

Without this kind of substantive change, it will be creativity as usual at Dell.

Winning the big Dell creative shootout will be some agency’s reward — it will also be their punishment.

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  • Totally agree with this – although it’s not just an agency that can fix it. It’s hard to market what at the end of the day is a turd.

    They need to clean up and simplify their product line, do away with their awful naming conventions and become focused on value and differentiation (not the crapware that lets them sell their PCs for $5 less than the next guy). With all this still in place, it makes it pretty hard for any agency to win.

    It saddens me that big professional agencies still participate in these creativity contests where they give away their ideas for free. Much like Dell should cut loose an agency that they don’t think is getting it done, they should also man-up and decide which agency has the expertise to take them where they want to go. Doing a dog-and-pony-show in front of their existing agency is disrespectful and shows they have no faith even in their ability to make tough decisions and stick with them – which, I guess at the end of the day is one of Dell’s core problems.

  • Stephen Sonnenfeld

    There’s no real solution to this problem. An agency, any agency, will not fix things. A new marketing person can’t. Even a whole new marketing team won’t have an impact. It’s such a deep, systemic, cultural cancer that there’s really only one thing to do:

    Don’t advertise.

    Seriously, save the close to $100MM dollars Dell pays its agencies and use it for something else. Take the $500MM or so that they spend in paid media and put it toward innovation R&D. Case in point, I’m at the epicenter of the target audience for Dell’s Consumer products and haven’t even seen any type of ad, piece of communication for close to a year. So, if they’re paying a media agency something like $20MM, what are they doing? What’s Dell getting for this expenditure?

    Great companies focus on what they’re good at, and minimize spending money on things they can’t do well. Dell’s not good at marketing and advertising. That’s not the worst thing in the world, many companies, large and small, suck at both these things. Why not take the money and put it against something that can actually pay dividends? There’s no rule that says just because you’re a big company like Dell you need to spend gobs of money on agencies and advertising.

    If I was an agency and was asked to pitch Dell’s business, I would say, “okay, here’s the deal, you pay me to prevent you from advertising, if the business remains flat or improves, you pay me a bonus, if it goes down you fire me and I’ll rebate a portion of the fee.” Most agencies do nothing anyway, so this really wouldn’t be much of a stretch.

  • ken segall

    Something tells me we won’t have to worry about Dell asking you to pitch their business. However, you have a really interesting point about Dell ceasing to advertise. I’d even be willing to fund the experiment just to see what happens. I’m just short a hundred million bucks this week.

  • Stephen Sonnenfeld

    For many reasons, you are correct sir.

  • Liebman

    This would be the perfect opportunity to plug my services as head Art Director in charge of creating the non-existant advertising. I feel I’m more than qualified to conceptualize such a campaign, and I guarantee that production costs would be substantially less than the other guys.

  • Cory

    It’s really simple…


    They need to look around at what has worked in the past and copy it – they need to “Think Different” and invest in their brand image. No product ads… just brand advertising to repair their public image.


    They need to fix their product lines… they need to streamline things and concentrate on making a smaller number of products and making them extremely well. They again need to copy what Steve Jobs did we he walked into Apple and had exactly the same problem in 1997.


    In 1997 Apple did these things, and today their company is the 2nd most valued company in the world. (Wonder how long it will take them to become #1 … IMO, not long)


  • Michael

    I’ve had an unusual run with Dell and can share an insight or two. (Stints with 3 Dell agencies on 3 different media, at 3 unique points of the company’s history.) The last time the company’s advertising worked was in 1990 when Goldberg Moser O’Neil created the lawsuit-inspiring campaign that directly targeted chief rival Compaq. Playing the underdog card hard, with Michael’s personal direction, Dell entered the PC industry swinging and fought for its place at the big table.

    Later, I ran the launch development of the original Dell.com for Grey Interactive and saw a huge organization fight their way toward lift-off. The loud inter-business unit tug-of-war over things like User Experience, Information Architecture and other aspects of this new channel that no one had ever touched nearly over-shadowed the noise made by the skyrocketing, ever-splitting stock market ride at that time. Dell was a darling, and everyone was deemed “expert.”

    While working with Enfatico, I saw the same organizational arrogance and even worse micromanagement of every aspect of Dell’s business culture. Washed of the stock market crown, the people had turned up the volume of microscopic critiques, death-defying tweaking, and short-term planning. Almost all energy was directed toward internal turf battles, organizational game and self-promotion rather than outward, at the buyers, influencers and competitors. WPP never had a chance.

    Dell is the textbook example of trying to teach a pig to sing: You only frustrate the pig, and it still can’t sing.

  • Steve

    There are lots of agencies with lots of creative talent. The problem is that it takes creative/talented people to recognize the same. That may very well be the misssing factor at Dell, with few exceptions. Enfatico and its creative efforts were doomed before they ever got going. Putting Dell and creativity in the same sentence could be viewed, by some, as an oxymoron. A company that insists on doing what it has always done doesn’t need an agency…just a media buyer.

  • LISA