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…



3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Craig on July 1, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Just be smart, creative, someone I want to drink beer with, and wear something that isn’t black.


  2. Posted by Craig on July 22, 2010 at 10:11 am

    I always like to bounce stuff off of Jan – he’s an encouraging friend, smart dude, funny, articulate, and a lot of fun to drink beer with. So I was teased by an article about a, (apparently) successful ad agency that put together what I consider to be an irresponsible and reckless marketing ploy.

    I took the bait, forwarded the piece (I’ll save everyone the piece), and unleashed a cynical note to Jan that he suggested I post. So if you take offense, blame him. The truth is, I really do like agencies (that’s how I met Jan) – It’s some of the creatives that I could do without. Here’s my note:

    So here’s a nice lead-in to my beef with creatives (at least those that I’ve managed or worked with on many occasions). Creatives will have you believe that they’re “dangerous”. They wear Fuck You t-shirts around the office, show up at job interviews with sneakers on, listen to bands that no one has ever heard of (including themselves), talk about everything being “irreverent” and that their work has to “break through the clutter”. Their work is always “spot on” because all their peer designers thought it was great. They all have to have a skateboard in their cubicle and all kinds of other dumb shit hanging on the walls (the more dumb shit, the more creative they are). They have stupid tattoos, like some Mandarin phrase that they don’t have a clue of what it means, “It means Courage.” (I loved that one from some punk at Reebok). They have to have a foosball table in their office, “We need things to motivate our creativity” How about going to a retail store or talking to consumers?

    I could go on and on. But the main point is that Creatives like to think of themselves as being unique/true to themselves/a rare breed. When in actuality, (in many cases) they’re all the same.


    • Thanks for this Craig.  I agree that the self-indulgent creative folks are the ones who ruin it for the more responsible ones.  I once knew an art director who would take a cab to the video store, rent movies for ideas, keep them too long and expense all of it…including the late fees.  All in the spirit of “concepting.”  Nice.


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