Commentary

Getting The Most Out Of Your Agency (Of The Future)

Ever heard the one about the agency that pitches a piece of business with the "A-Team" and once they win the account, the "B-team" gets put on the business? It's a common gripe against the agency model and one that I wholeheartedly agree is a problem, but before we complain about the problem we should first understand the reason. If we understand the reason, we can find a solution.

The agency model is definitely getting hit hard. Let's face it (and I'm not the first person to say it), it's broken. The situation described above is a symptom of the problem, not a rationale for it. One primary component of the problem is that agencies can and do offer significant value, but very few clients are willing to actually pay for it. Most clients subscribe to the theory that they should be serviced "good, fast and cheap" but most agencies tell them to "pick two, you can't have all three." Many clients want to be innovative, but they rarely want to be the first brand to test something. Everyone wants innovation, but then they want a case study for how that innovative solution will help them drive their business. What's funny is that if it is truly innovative, very few people have done it -- and you can be pretty sure there is no published case study on it.

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Of course, the clients are not all to blame for this. The agencies tend to over-promise, under-deliver and are not staffed according to the level of intelligent work they profess to offer. There are some exceptions to the rule, but in creative shops as well as in media shops, you find there are a finite number of the "brilliant" characters who are driving the lion's share of the strategic work.

These are the road warriors: the people on a first-name basis with the counter people at the customer service desk at the airport. These are the folks who leave their bags and a change of clothes with the bell desk at their favorite hotels, knowing full well they'll be back in a week. They drive the majority of the strategic vision for agencies while being highly stressed, overworked and probably a little malnourished.

These people are the "A-team" that pitches your business, but the agencies have them on the road so much that they can rarely find the time to sit still and add intelligent thought to the companies they've pitched and won. What's more, the majority of client budgets get pushed to tactical execution rather than to covering the time of these people, so the clients don't get what they were looking for. This is the agency-side quandary, and it's something we need to fix.

In the old days, an agency relationship with a brand lasted a very long time. In many cases the brand and their agency partners worked together for so long that they saw each other's kids go off to college. They had a relationship that ran deeper than 40+ hours a week and they knew each other on a personal level. They were committed to one another and they offered each other the chance to make mistakes, knowing full well that mistakes were acceptable because you have to "break a few eggs to make an omelet."

It was that sense of empowerment that helped create a mutually beneficial relationship. In today's environment, the agency/brand relationship is fickle, all too often sitting on the shoulders of people who are under-trained, overworked and unable to handle the level of strategic vision that is required to make the relationship work. They are not trained to do the kind of work necessary and the model is devolving so training is getting thrown right out the window. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!

So what do we do about it?

Maybe we need a "Jerry Maguire" moment here: fewer clients and deeper relationships. Maybe we need to unbundle, working with best-o- breed shops to take advantage of the commodization of media buying and creative execution. Maybe it's focusing your strongest talent on your strongest clients? Maybe it's all three.

Yes, I think it's all three.

For agencies of the future to continue to grow and excel, they need focus. Clients need to be committed and able to empower their partners. The partners need to be encouraged to take calculated risks, with the freedom to make a mistake. You can't win without taking a shot, and sometimes when you take a shot you can miss, but you have to be empowered to take that risk. Meanwhile, agencies need to focus the right people on the businesses where they were promised, and put out their best work, not the work that enables them to get by.

Your partners work hard on the work they deliver to you and they deserve attention and more than five minutes of feedback. The clients need to default to best intentions and work with their partners as partners, not as vendors. The agency needs to staff right and it needs to put the caliber of people on business that it deserves.

An agency should be strategic and provide what's best for the client first, even if it means less revenue in the short term, but a happier, longer lasting relationship with the client for the long haul. A client should ask their agency if they are the most important client for that shop. If the shop is big, then they should ask their account team, "Am I your most important client"? The answer should be yes and it shouldn't be rhetoric. I know that every client I work on is important to me; it's my reputation on the line and it's my intelligence that is being applied to the business. If I don't take the work seriously, who will?

These may sound obvious and even a bit idealistic, but isn't that why you got into this business in the first place? Didn't you get into advertising and marketing to be creative, to solve problems and impact brands that you see every day? I know I did -- and I have a hunch you did, too.

9 comments about "Getting The Most Out Of Your Agency (Of The Future)".
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  1. Janel Landis laravie from Chacka Marketing, October 28, 2009 at 4:46 p.m.

    Very well stated! Loved this article!

  2. Jeff Einstein from The Brothers Einstein, October 28, 2009 at 4:55 p.m.

    Cory, I think you offer pretty sound observations in this article, but the simple truth is that we teach people how to treat us. Agencies who don't set the rules of engagement right up front are inviting clients to walk all over them, and clients who do little more than argue price points up front invite the agencies to treat their relationships with them like the commodities they've actually become.

    It's always more important to negotiate the rules of engagement (who talks to whom about what when) that inform the relationship than it is to negotiate the price tag.

  3. Andrew Brooks from Microsoft, October 28, 2009 at 5:03 p.m.

    This is well put Cory and of course extends deeper into how vendors and partners fall into the equation. Collaboration between vendor, agency and client is more important than ever, especially when going for the adoption of innovative techniques and tools. For technology vendors especially (like Microsoft Atlas) it is imperative for clients to have a direct relationship with vendors, as well as through the agency, because there is so much additional value a client can leverage on the capabilities front that might not typically fall into the remit of the agency. An example of this would be the integration of Atlas digital data into Microsoft Enterprise tools - tools that clients (and agencies) use every data (Excel, PowerPoint, SharePoint, SQL Server). This level of integration into a full Business Intelligence stack clearly expands beyond just digital marketing, but deepens a relationship and brings the word "partner" straight back into the spotlight.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 28, 2009 at 5:12 p.m.

    Yes, yes, yes. We need to reinstate PAY ATTENTION and patience. This immediate gratification society is destroying ourselves. Get off the phone and drive. There have been decades of national mismanagement of the economy and health care. Now we expect it be fixed without cooperation in 8 months. ("Not gonna' happin'.")Mega agencies have much in common with the too big to fail banking system where the right hand is clueless about what the rest of the body is doing as long it's gloved/covered up properly.

  5. Ravi Kiran from Friends of Ambition, October 28, 2009 at 10:38 p.m.

    Agree with Cory and all the previous commentators to this post 100%. Funny thing is, it's the same experience all over the world. In our desperation to grow revenue, we differentiate between clients who are commoditising our business and those who might give us a chance, no matter how remote, to get us back on the track.

    Every rival agency head I meet laments that our business is going to the dogs [I pity the dogs], but all of us pay lip service to future.

    The duplicity we practice in our everyday life is driving good people away, and we dont even bother looking for the brightest any longer.

    If we dont wake up and do something now, soon there is nothing left to do.

  6. Sunil Sivarajan from mediaedge:cia, October 29, 2009 at 4:51 a.m.

    Very insightful. I must say, there are clients who have started realising that there is a cost involved for talent and to retain them. One example is that the remuneration for online media is higher than off line media and clients do understand and have accepted this fact because of the relatively more man hours required for the online media.

    Also, many agencies do showcase an "A team" for a pitch and a "team B" works on the account once won. This could be avoided by including the team B to be part of the pitch presentation and making sure that the 'team B" is part of the pitch process too.

  7. Jon Winsell from The Experts Bench, October 29, 2009 at 12:06 p.m.

    Cory: Love it. Nicely done. Agree that the answer is in all three--focus, focus, focus. In an economic atmosphere forcing agencies to do more with less, let's focus and do what we do, better.

    Strategy is not a department, not a group. It's a competency that everyone in the agency should share and develop further. BTW, so is creativity...Thanks for your insights.

  8. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, October 29, 2009 at 5:26 p.m.

    Agencies may be forgiven for having their Chicken Little moment. They decry the fact that their services have been commoditized, yet they willingly compete by cutting fees. They bemoan the fact that talent is expensive, yet rather than grow their own, they pilfer from other agencies. And while agencies champion themselves as "brand builders" their own brands have an indistinguishable blandness about them.

    One could be forgiven for thinking the best way to grow a communications business in this day and age is to watch what the big agency groups do and go 180 degrees the other way.

    http://www.quisenblog.com www.twitter.com/mickeylonchar

  9. Mark allen Roberts from Out of the Box Solutions, LLC, October 29, 2009 at 10:10 p.m.

    Having been one of those road warriors you nailed it!

    Our clients are buying the services of the firm, but also building trust with the road warrior and his or her's creativity, and creative problem solving.

    Hand off a key account to a B or far too often C team and you become a "marketing tool" that I discuss in my blog: http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/20-top-entrepreneurial-best-practices-to-insure-2010-is-a-profitable-year/ .... And you are shocked the average account retention is slipping and 88% of CEO's now involved in the buying decision see Ad firms as a commodity?

    It's time for a "reset" in the Agency model...will you lead it?

    Mark Allen Roberts
    www.outbsolutions.com

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