Marketing Confessions: The Industry's Deficit
I see the work of many agencies -be they ad agencies, direct agencies, PR agencies or the interactive type - suffering from a greater and greater deficit between what they say they offer clients and what their staff actually delivers.
Maybe it's the effects of consolidation and the increased economies of scale in many industries' marketing budgets. Once the budget gets ludicrously large, it becomes unwieldy and is often spent in a fashion designed more for convenience than marketing effectiveness. Perhaps it's just the fact that a lot of big agencies have become ossified, but I see marketers both on the client and agency side making decisions that can only be classified as intellectually lazy.
Promises and Reality
Agency new business pitches most often employ messages that advertising creatives would call 'aspirational.' In other words: 'not quite yet true.' This certainly isn't new. Every agency pitches new business in a bootstrapping fashion that puts client resources into place only after the business is won. What's disturbingly new to me, though, is the sense that there are some very consistent failures to deliver promised services long after the business is won.
Three come to mind.
1. - In pitching larger clients or international ones, all the agencies portray their offices as working harmoniously with each other. I've worked for the largest ad agency group in the world, the second largest and the third largest, and I can tell you that on planet Earth, this harmony doesn't really exist. All the large agencies are politically constructed so that one office benefits from a client's billings and other offices contribute to that endeavor as an act of unrewarded charity.
2. - Every agency has a methodology. Most have it branded as some sort of proprietary process, but they all bake down to a very similar substance. You take the marketing needs and develop an objective that gets translated, through research and insight, into media and creative briefs that then... blah blah blah. When presented like this, it looks like the agency process is driven by the marketing need. But in actual execution, the very fact that agencies have hard-and-fast processes is what drives whatever the client objectives may be. And clients themselves make it worse by allowing certain types of agencies to approach only certain kinds of marketing tasks. When a client company really needs an integrated plan incorporating PR, broadcast advertising, place-based advertising, direct mail and other elements, they instead find each agency recommending comprehensive plans employing only their own expertise.
3. - The examples agencies use in a new business pitch usually piece together elements of consumer insight - perhaps garnered by an impromptu study or focus group - to show how the agency is expert at reading the market and reacting appropriately. And sometimes an initial campaign for a client does indeed involve some useful learning processes. But soon, the research process becomes co-opted by the client and agency marketing teams who wish not to discover new insights, but rather to prove that the old ones worked well enough to justify a new budget. What should be an iterative learning sequence becomes a self-referential spiral of proving how successful previous campaigns have been, despite growing irrelevance.
Perhaps I'm just a cynic, but it appears to me that the larger agencies and the clients with the larger budgets tend to suffer more from these problems. The sheer quantity of bureaucracy required to run these monsters ensures that the marketing will become beholden to a highly-articulated process, rather than the process changing with the changing needs of the marketing.
One could liken it to the Defense Department's troubles with acquiring $750 wrenches and $1,200 toilet seats. When you spend $300 billion in a year, it's hard to keep track of nuts and bolts. I recognize that in some cases, we have to learn to live with certain inefficiency. Ironically, the systems that would need to be put in place to correct that would prove less efficient in the long run.
The thing that concerns me most is the heart of the marketers.
Yes, Virginia, there is a heart in each marketer - well, most anyway. It tends to be one of two types. There are the marketers who find the discipline fascinating. These marketers get excited about what makes audiences tick. They yearn to discover the levers that will influence people. To them, it's a grand game and a noble profession. To the others, marketing is a middle-status job that's something you can do out of school with only a liberal arts degree. These folks worry a great deal about the process of advertising because it lets them get home sooner in the evening. It breeds this thing called marketing formalism, which is a grand way of saying, "I don't care if the ad works, as long as it meets the brief and has all the right check marks."
Traditional advertising is a haven for marketing formalism because there are very few ways to verify performance. In the online world, it's harder to get away with merely checking off the boxes in the long-term.