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Have you been asked by a local business to develop an ad strategy, manage a company's paid search campaign or create promotional flyers for a nightclub?

If some in the ad industry have their way, you'd need a license to do all of those things.

In an AdAge opinion piece, agency owner Jaci Russo argues that the ad industry is in desperate need of some regulation.

Even Realtors and interior designers require testing and certifications to practice their trade, and it just seems wrong that our industry does not require the same amount of quality control.

 How can we expect clients to respect us if we don't even take our industry seriously enough to insist on testing and licensing? All you need to call yourself an art director or copywriter is a computer, phone and a copy of 'place any do-it-yourself marketing book here'

Instead, she insists, ad industry professionals should be treated more like doctors and lawyers: subject to testing, licensing and continuing education. The outcome: higher quality and happier, safer clients.

But is she right?

While there's a strong argument to be made that certain professionals, namely doctors and lawyers, should be subject to some licensing requirements, even in the most regulated of fields there's an insidious truth to many licensing regimes: one of their primary purposes is to artificially limit supply.

Yes, despite the fact that a bad doctor could kill you and a bad lawyer could land you a long prison sentence, the regulation of doctors and lawyers has a lot more to do with restricting competition than Russo seems to know.

The high costs and lengthy process of licensing keep many talented people out of a profession, limiting the number of providers and enabling those who have the resources to complete licensing to maintain higher rates. If you ever wondered why it costs so much to have someone tell you where to place your couch in your Las Vegas penthouse, now you know why.

Licensure in no way guarantees desirable results and in some professions, individuals can get away with pretty much anything short of murder and still keep their licenses. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of people building successful businesses sans license because they do a great job.

Make no mistake: the ad industry would follow this same path. Providers would not be able to guarantee results (even the best agencies can't do that today), and licensed providers responsible for horrible ads wouldn't lose their licenses.

Clients would have fewer suppliers to choose from

The only difference under a licensing regime: clients would have fewer 'legitimate' providers to choose from, and those providers would thus be able to charge more.

The loss of a diverse pool of providers would be particularly harmful in an industry that thrives on creativity. Russo states,

Within the industry, different companies use the terms advertising, marketing and branding very differently. Without standards, how can we expect the public to know the difference?

But there's a reason 'advertising', 'marketing' and 'branding' are used differently: they don't mean the same thing to every client and provider. The word 'advertising', for instance, means something very different to a sole trader than it does to a Fortune 500 brand.

But this really isn't about definitions of course. The implementation of 'standards' in such a sophisticated, multi-disciplinary field is nothing more than a trojan horse designed to ensure that everyone looks and thinks the same, making it easier for the less innovative to pretend that they're not behind the curve.

There are already plenty of ways to establish credibility

Fundamental problems with licensing aside, perhaps the biggest argument against licensing is the fact that there are already so many ways people in the industry can establish their credibility.

From college degrees to vendor-based certification programs, there are no shortage of credentials clients can look for when hiring an agency or recruiting a professional. Looking for a graphic designer? An experienced candidate with a degree from a well-known design school is tough to beat.

Need someone to manage your paid search campaigns on Google? Look for a provider that completed Google's AdWords Certification Program. Seeking a marketing expert? A candidate who completed Econsultancy's MSc in Digital Marketing Communications might stand out.

None of these things is required by a government body or accreditation organization, but they don't have to be. If employers and clients are looking for the crème de la crème, those most motivated to get hired will do what it takes to prove their worth.

The client Russo says she's concerned about -- the one hiring an inexperienced freelancer thinking he or she runs an agency -- is liable to lose out because it didn't do due diligence, not because it didn't have the tools to judge a provider's credibility.

After all, if you hire a 20 year-old kid thinking you're getting a full-service agency, you clearly didn't even visit the faux agency's office. In other words, Russo's hypothetical victim is precisely the client that probably won't even bother to check that a provider is licensed! Of course, if such a client makes a bad decision and is disappointed by the results, agencies that can deliver will welcome the opportunity to swoop in and win the cleanup work.

Clearly, anyone arguing that clients are incapable of making informed decisions (or living with the outcomes from bad decisions) is probably driven less by a genuine interest in protecting clients from "posers" than by his or her own inability to win clients over those "posers".

Licensing in the ad industry won't improve results for clients

There is no objective credentialing process that can guarantee the competence of individuals and businesses operating in an industry that is inherently focused on influencing the subjective considerations of consumers in an almost infinite number of ways.

Instead of boosting quality, mandatory licensing would simply limit creativity, protect established players, create a cottage industry around certification and force clients to pay more for services.

Knowing that a provider wrote a check to the government, passed a test showing that it knows the definition of 'branding', spent four years taking Photoshop classes at an accredited university and paid $500 to attend a continuing education seminar on social media isn't going to help clients. Clients don't really care what you know; they care that what you know can be applied to their business to drive results.

The good news is that mandatory licensing is little more than a pipe dream for providers worried about their competitiveness. Today, it's possible that a mid-sized brand in the U.S. could work with an agency based in Toronto or Rio de Janiero and be successful.

A small, local businesses in the U.K. doesn't need to pay an arm and a leg to a London-based agency to create a handful of flyers; it can log on to a site like Elance and find a graphic designer with agency experience now living in Prague who will do it faster for a fraction of the cost.

From this perspective, the fact that some are calling for mandatory licensing is actually a positive sign: it means professionals and agencies in the ad industry are worried about stiffer competition. Those who can compete will rise to the challenge. Those who can't will yell for licensing requirements until they're hoarse.

Patricio Robles

Published 22 March, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2403 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

Avatar-blank-50x50

Will Rowan

I love it!

There would be a race to be first prosecuted for 'Practicing advertising without a license'

... because it would of course be great publicity.
& any anti-establishment, freedom-loving brand would want to be the first ad prosecuted for having been publicized by an unlicensed practitioner.

All it would need is a free-spirited adman. Deeply in love with liberal legislation. And equally determined to preserve freedom, liberty & the 'merican way.
Now where on earth would we find one of those?

Will

over 5 years ago

Eoin Kenneally

Eoin Kenneally, Ecommerce Consultant at Consultant

Did she not consider the vast number of qualifications on offer to professionals?

CIM, Google Adwords & Analytics and MSc courses.

Given that having these qualifications is a boost for any agency most clients can see by the level of experience and quality of work out there that licensing is a moot point.

However if one person sets up as an Art Director what real impact if any would that have on the industry?

over 5 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Nikki Davis, Creative Director at Interactive Workshop

Exactly what the DMA is for!

over 5 years ago

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