Life. Then Strategy

How to milk an advertising agency for all it’s worth

You want the quick answer? Well, I’ll tell you this: it has nothing to do with procurement, scaring your agency into pitching for every project, the head-hour model or hands-off ‘solving my problem’ delegation. It’s about relationships with the people who work tirelessly on your business issues, usually late into the night and weekends away from family and friends.

I’ve never been in a meeting where agency people have tried to come up with schemes to rip clients off. Most internal meetings I’ve been in are about trying to make the company better and solving the client’s business problem.

There are sharks in advertising, absolutely. Every time I have to pitch on a project for a client we’re rostered on and work into the weekends away from my family, I think about those sharks. I feel I’m paying for their sins, for the excesses of decades and generations past, and crazy beliefs about the perks creative agencies get. Let’s face it, only the media guys get perks these days. I’m kidding – if you want to think I am.

I’ve just started this book called Obliquity. In the intro, the author talks about spending over a decade creating economic models for clients to use only to realise that they use them to justify decisions they’ve already made. Again and again, research shows that our decision-making is emotional but the business world pretends it’s hyper-rational. And so calls get made about the emotional part of the business – the brand and the agencies involved with creating and managing that brand – in a quasi-rational way. Yet when things go awry (the GFC, for example), people keep talking about emotional stuff like ‘confidence’ affecting typically rational stuff like the share market. Go figure.

So here’s the key… if you’re a marketer, understand that most people in the agency that work on your business want to do a good job. Understand that strategy and ideas are absolutely an emotional under-taking, that many of the best ideas won’t come to the person while they’re at their desk; instead, many great ideas will pop out of the subconscious while your team’s away from the office – in the shower, at a museum or art gallery, while they’re reading a book, while they’re walking to work or hanging out with friends and families.

And as much as some business types want to treat agencies like subordinates rather than partners, understanding that the big ideas come from a ponderous, emotional (lack of) process and that people working on the business usually have many other clients to work on… you need to own your share of their emotional energy.

Here’s what I’d do if I was you. I mean this constructively.

1. Make your agencies’ output a senior priority

I was winded a while ago when a marketing director of a business I had just started working on was interviewed in the trade press and proudly discussed how ‘dealing with agencies’ was something the junior people did. Marketers are always fighting for credibility – usually in their own organisations and against the sales team who think they could take the marketing budget, employ more sales people and do better. But this relegation of what a business and brand is about to junior people and the arrogance associated with this decision is so misguided… if senior people in your business engage with the agency, you know what will happen? The agency people – yes, the people who work weekends trying to satisfy you – may work that little bit extra to do something great. They’ll also hear from the horse’s mouth what the big problems are… and they may even be able to help solve them.

2. Care about who works on your business; care for who works on your business

From time to time, I hear a client’s asked for the ‘best team’ to work on their business. Like the juniorising of ‘dealing with agencies’, this can be a bit of a folly. The ‘best team’ usually means the team with the most profile and awards. The issue: increasingly, it’s not a duo that will solve the business issue – it will be a variety of people with very different backgrounds and from various agencies. So, do care about who works on your business – but expand your point of view from just the traditional copywriter and art director paradigm. And then once you know your team… actually care about them. Get to know them. Take them to lunch or something. Ask them for bottom-of-the-drawer ideas. Ask them for frankness about what they’d do given carte blanche.

One marketing team I worked with sits down annually and selects the campaign from the various agencies that they’re most proud of and rewards the individuals involved with the campaign. And guess what happens? The people they reward feel appreciated and, regardless of the potential of any future reward, will try that little bit extra in the future. Most people in advertising just love the idea of ideas – a bit of validation will go a long way. And it doesn’t need to be financial.

3. Don’t let your wife or husband decide which campaign to go with

I won’t psychoanalyse this too much but when a team senses this is happening, all bets are off. Things become too unpredictable. You won’t get good work if you reflect back to a team what your partner thinks because your partner is very rarely the target audience. It will just reveal that you aren’t confident in your own point of view.

4. Don’t drop a brief and run… away on holiday

Wow… I can’t tell you how often this happens. The marketing team gets their plan together and briefs the agency and then key people disappear for a month hoping the problem’s solved by the time they’re back. This is crazy. Don’t do it. You will know so much more than your agency team. You need to play an active role in solving your business problems. This can’t happen while you’re on a beach somewhere. All that will happen is you’ll come back, not get what you want and the relationship will sour.

5. Create a fluff-free zone

Sometimes I sit in meetings and don’t understand what people are saying. I understand a bunch of big words. Problem is, people can hide in big words… and diagrams… and frameworks. Really challenge each other to talk plainly. Small words, chunky insights, sharp ideas. It will reduce the amount of debate about what words mean. If you even get into a debate about words when it comes to a business issue or creative idea then it means it’s too complicated anyway. Keep it simple.

6. Viciously reduce the admin

Yes, procurement departments are running things these days but admin is silly. There are a variety of new remuneration models appearing around the place (percentage of sales, fixed fees for ideas and services, etc). Admin (and managing a lot of other agencies) can easily chew up 10-20% of the time your team spends on your business. Why not use that time to help your business move forward – or save the money?

Business models of agencies and their clients are shifting dramatically. So too are the values of a new generation of agency and marketing types. Hopefully, this new generation will be able to re-calibrate the values and relationships between the two.

What do you think?

If you are an agency type, how could marketers get more out of you?
If you’re a marketer and want to constructively reply, let me know. I’d love to publish it. We’re just humans after all. Things should be simpler… and better.

Photo courtesy macalit.

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