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Advertising: Heady days are history: Value for money has supplanted creativity as clients' top priority, writes Helen Slingsby

THE CURRENT television commercials for the soft drink Tango, featuring the Orangeman, an exploding granny and a Napoleon lookalike sporting an outsize orange rubber glove, suggest that the UK advertising industry is alive and kicking.

However, these memorable images are among the exceptions. The need to survive means more and more agencies have bitten their creative tongues.

Instead of providing grand 'image-building' campaigns, agencies are now under pressure to come up with results. Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, for instance, claims its Tango adverts have led to a 30 per cent year-on-year increase in sales and have made Britvic's competitors consider the future of their own products.

The growing commitment to this approach was echoed in a survey carried out for the trade newspaper Marketing Week. For the first time in four years, top marketing directors cited value for money over creativity as the most important criterion in choosing an agency. What used to be the raison d'etre of an agency has been usurped in the drive for cost-effectiveness and accountability.

This is not surprising given the economic climate and the growing use of direct marketing. It is also highly evident in terms of what appears on our screens and billboards.

Take an average night's TV adverts - the majority are superbly crafted and executed but few actually take risks. Car advertisements, for example, have started to blur into one.

Behind-the-scenes bickering after an unsuccessful tender for some new business frequently sees the losing agencies criticising the victor for 'giving clients what they wanted'.

But if the Marketing Week research is anything to go by, the critics are barking up the wrong tree. The survey reveals that 150 marketing directors randomly chosen from the top 450 spenders on advertising, gave value for money a 63 per cent weighting; creativity was second at 57 per cent.

Tighter budgets and increasingly sophisticated marketing directors have prompted the change. Media buying, or purchasing the space on TV and in the press for a client, has also grown in importance. Ranked third in every previous year, it received 10 per cent more weight this year than last.

Based on these criteria and four others - quality of managers, attentiveness to clients, marketing strategy and coverage of foreign markets - the marketing directors assessed 50 prominent agencies.

J Walter Thompson, the agency which also offers best value for money, was chosen best agency overall, followed by Saatchi & Saatchi and BMP DDB Needham.

Agencies also seem to be watching their costs. Saatchi has leapt from sixth to second place in the value-for-money stakes. Lowe Howard-Spink managed fifth place, compared with a dismal 23rd two years ago.

The above agencies are all in the Top Five for creativity. Boasting the top creative slot for the fourth year running is Bartle Bogle Hegarty, provider of the sexy Levi's and Haagen-Dazs commercials, followed by Saatchi and Lowe Howard-Spink.

While clients may prefer value for money, agency bosses are sticking with creativity. Adrian Holmes, Lowe Howard-Spink chairman, says: 'Creativity is the most effective value for money we can offer our clients. Five per cent off a bad idea is not good value at all.'

Helen Slingsby is news editor of 'Marketing Week'

(Photograph omitted)