Archive for June, 2010

The Problem With Agencies

Many of you loved my masterpiece, The Problem With Clients. You begged me to talk about agencies. Certainly over the course of my ISC (you do know what that is by now) I experienced the good, the bad and the absurd. Full disclosure: I haven’t worked in an agency since 2005, but I still have many friends who do.

So without further blah-blah, here goes.

Get a different label.  The word “agency” doesn’t seem very important or even accurate. The company you keep can be a measure of success, or not.   Just look at these other agencies:
Modeling Agency: The gateway to most reality shows.
Employment Agency: Otherwise known as headhunters and recruiters, which are getting trashed these days by Linked In.
Travel Agency: Are there any of these left?
Government Agency: You mean like the Federal Emergency Management Agency? Or the Minerals Management Agency at the center of the BP debacle?
Talent Agency: These are the people who get paid to make Octomom, the last Powerball winner, and Dennis Rodman famous.

The left brain vs. right brain issue.  Business strategy typically comes from the left brain while creativity comes from the right. That places most agencies in conflict both internally and externally. The “suits” tend to be rational, analytical and objective. They care a lot about revenues, profits, budgets and deadlines. The left-brainers like straightforward, right-down-the-middle, and smart. Selling a lot of stuff and making a lot of money is very rewarding for them. They drive nice cars, generally live upscale, and wear long pants to work — often with a sport coat.

The right-brainers are intuitive, emotional and subjective. They care about the tone, look and feel of things. They never seem to have enough time or money for their assignment and find peer recognition to be most rewarding. They too drive nice cars and live upscale, but tend to wear shorts and t-shirts to work — often emblazoned with the name of an obscure production company. Around the office they keep odd hours and live like wolves.

These two groups tend to rule agencies. As a result there is a continuous conflict at the intersection of commerce and creativity.

They’re just like us, right? Agency folks tend to be left-leaning, affluent and well-educated. Their lifestyles are quite different from much of the rest of the country. Yet they create communications designed to get those people to buy or care about stuff. (To be fair, their clients want all their customers to be “upscale.”) Nobody ever writes a brief aimed at people working near the poverty line, buried in debt, with just a high school degree. But the average per capital income in the U.S. is $22,000. And 80 percent of Americans have a high school degree or less. Agencies are creating ideas for a tiny percentage of the public. So the next time somebody at an agency tells you: “They will love this ad/banner/TV spot/Facebook page,” ask them: “Who is ‘they?'”

“I need this for my book.” When a creative person says this, she means “I need to have a portfolio that will get me a job elsewhere.” It rarely has anything to do with helping sell stuff, and probably is nowhere near being on strategy. It’s an example of the self-indulgent nature of the industry. The ad biz is full of gypsies: average tenure in an agency is less than two years. And as a result, few people are really vested in their agency or their clients.  Agency people are usually funny, passionate, creative, neurotic and smart — with the attention span of Ty Pennington.. Agency people are excited about new ideas, new clients, new technology and new gadgets. They get bored working on the same client for a long time. So they are always looking around the ad community to see who is hiring and who has the cool brands. And you only get hired if you’ve done cool stuff, and have the cool awards to prove it. The stuff they most want in their book is the stuff that’s the hardest to get a client to approve.

The meetings.  In an agency, it takes a village to get shit done. Let’s say a client wants a couple of ads to run somewhere.  The Ad Manager tells the Account Manager what she needs.  The AE dutifully writes it down and goes back to the agency to gather the team.  Before any Creative or Media thinking can occur, there needs to be a brief.  And that lies in Planner world.  So the AE huddles with the Planner and a brief is written which contains all the who, what, why, budget, timing, and the key insight.  Then another meeting in which the AE and Planner meet with the Creative and Media folks and tell them what the client wants and probably some extra stuff like tone and look.  The Media people want to know how much the budget is and when the ads need to run and who the audience is and where they are.  The Creative people want to know if they can have more time and money.

After several weeks the ad concepts are presented to the client who miraculously loves them.   By now several hundred man hours have been consumed, resulting in a budget overrun the size of the Belgian GNP. 

More meetings will take place with yet other people in the agency like the Project Manager, Traffic, and the  Production digerati, who actually get the ads made.  A full-blown campaign with online stuff, events and PR will require still more meetings with other groups.  When the final accounting occurs there will be still more meetings. Meetings with the client to defend why the project was 300 percent over budget. And meetings within the agency to figure what to do about all the money it lost on the job. 

And so it goes…



Sunday Shallow

There are many people around the world who view the U.S. as arrogant.  Thanks to Dave for this great find, we now have proof that we actually do have a raher skewed view of the world.  Is it any wonder we are unloved by so many?

10 Brands That May Disappear Soon

24/7 WallSt. has been predicting the demise of several brand for a few years.   Here is their latest offering.  It’s worth noting that they haven’t been right yet.  That said, a few of these seem likely.  For example, they’ve been predicting the end of Blockbuster for a while.  It seems as though Blockbuster is continuously scrambling to stay viable.  When so much is available online and cheaper (Can you say Redbox?) it seems like it’s only a matter of time. 

A couple of others include Reader’s Digest and Radio Shack.  You know “The Shack” is in trouble when they have Reader’s Digest magazines in their lobby.  Enjoy.

Weekend Shallow

Headed out of town for the weekend…lookin’ for sun.  Thanks to John Jones for this great find.  We all need a little luck and this video proves it.

The Problem With Clients

As you know, I’ve had an Incredibly Successful Career (ISC).  My job was to be the intermediary between clients and the intergalactic agency.  My employment and subsequent raises, promotions and bonuses were tied to my ability to get and keep clients. I got a lot of them so what I say is gold.

Over the course of my ISC, I (not me personally, but the intergalactic agency)  was hired and fired by many clients.  In retrospect, neither was ever for the right reasons.  Clients fired the agency when sales were up and when sales were down.  Clients hired the agency because sales were not  up enough and when sales were down.  The agency was also hired because we had a “friend” at the client who loved us.  And we were fired because the client had a “friend” at a competing agency.  We were also not hired by prospective clients because we were too big and because we were too small.  (I always loved it when a prospect called me and said, “We chose the other guys ’cause you are just too small/big.”  I would always reply, “We are the same size we were when you invited us to this review six months ago.”  That was usually met with silence.)

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: by the time an agency is fired the relationship had ended long before the bullet. And when you’re hired you are one day closer to being fired.  It’s never a matter of if, just when.  It could take a month (that happened to me once) or it could take 70 years, but it will happen.  Inevitably the client will decide the relationship is over.

So, I thought I’d share my thoughts on some of the reasons client-agency relationships deteriorate.  Here, I will discuss  reasons clients are the problem. Assuming a company who wants to hire me reads this,  just know that I will write next about the problem with agencies. 

It’s worth saying that these apply across any service industries.  There is always somebody providing a service.  And always somebody paying for the service.  In that time frame a relationship exists.  It could be for a few minutes or many years.  The point is that success lies within our ability to create mutual trust.  And that takes commitment on both sides.

Okay, without further blah-blah here goes:

Let’s-Hire-An-Agency Syndrome:  I have sat in client management meetings when it was decided to hire an agency because the company leadership couldn’t decide what their core value proposition was, how much they should spend on marketing or even who their key customers were.  My advice:  You are throwing your money away by hiring an agency.  If you have no idea who you are or who your customer is or what you want marketing to accomplish, then you will spend gobs of money with an agency who will charge you gobs of money for their ideas while accomplishing nothing.  Agencies work best when given clear direction from which they can focus in on single-minded ideas.  When clients are adrift, nothing really gets done and everyone is frustrated.  You must know who you are before you ask someone to help you say it.

The “No” Problem:  Too many clients give marketing folks responsibility but no authority.  That means the primary agency contact has just enough confidence to say “no.”  He/she is not willing to approve anything independently.  Yet the person is unwilling to have the boss think he/she is weak.  So the client contact will say “no” to anything new, unusual or groundbreaking. 

Fear The Ankle-Biters:  This is a corollary to the “No” problem.  Too many client contacts are only confident about minutia.  They focus on spelling, typos and being right.  They seldom see the forest as they are immersed in the trees.  They suffocate creativity and innovation as they manage logo size.   The ankle-biters have a place executing projects and making sure they get done. 

The Management Disconnect:  Boardroom discussions are rarely about ads, new media or marketing in general.  It’s all about revenues, profits and shareholder value.  The marketing department is often quite removed from senior management.  Take a look at Apple to see a tight relationship between company leadership and marketing.  Everything from product development to retail to imagery is tight.  Now look at GEICO.  The company and the marketing used to be in sync.  Now the marketing is all over the place and I’ve forgotten what the brand is all about. I can’t tell you how many times the agency followed the marketing department’s direction only to have everything nuked by senior management who was on a totally different path.

“This is so cool.”  The client who wants to be around the agency because it’s cool will ultimately take the agency down.  There are clients who love hangin’ around the agency, gossiping about the biz and talking about the latest spot they saw or the cool award show they went to.  They are star f****rs and time suckers.  They usually don’t have any real idea of what to do — but they “love” everything the agency does.  They would really like to work at the agency and spend a lot of time in L.A. seeing and being seen.

Advertising will fix our problem.  As a colleague of mine once said:  “If you think advertising will solve your problem, your problem better be advertising.”  Too often, clients think  ads, events, online presence and buzz will overcome other problems — like the product sucks.  Or it’s priced wrong.  Or there are service issues.   The point is that marketing a bad product/service/idea will make it fail faster.  We  had a burger client once who opted to create and promote fish and chips.  Hmm.  Huge campaign.  Huge trial.  No repeat.  Why?  Bad product.  Clients who fail to see that their problem lies outside of marketing are destined to fail.

Say. Do. Be.  Somebody once said:  “Before you say it, you must do it.  And before you can do it, you must be it.”  Too many clients want to promote their green-ness (are you feeling me BP?),  their community involvement, their innovation, their integrity, their service, their quality, blah, blah, blah because somebody else is having success with it.  Or because they don’t really have anything to talk about.  Or just because it would make a good ad.  Nothing will kill a brand more quickly than promoting a value or an asset you do not actually have or believe in.  

“Give me good, cheap, fast — and I’ll take Revolutionary while you’re at it.”  Run from this client.

Sweet Home Ala-BAM-a

Another gem from the mother lode of American political campaigning that is Alabama.  No other state has shown the consistency of Alabama in defining the important issues in oh-so creative ways.  Here Rick Barber running for something goes into the time machine and brings us a couple of political legends to help make his case.  Not sure exactly what his point is…but you gotta love the fervor.

Laptop x Lake x Sun = No Writing Today

My writer's block