Process Paralysis And The Need To Act Quickly (Sounds Like Fun)

I was reading some articles and catching up over the weekend when I came across an article in the British edition of Marketing Week written by Jamie Matthews, who's at an agency called Initials Marketing. Matthews was writing about the shift from advertising back to marketing, which is a topic near and dear to my own heart. 

I tend to feel that too many people don't know the difference between the two -- a  difference that's become even more pronounced with the growth and expansion of digital media.  Put simply, advertising is paid exposure, and marketing is the full gamut of consumer and target audience interactions, of which advertising is just one single myopic component.


What was most interesting in the article to me was Matthews' observation that in today's fast-paced world, it is even more important for marketers to develop ideas rapidly and implement them in an efficient, effective and economic manner so they optimize quickly.



I couldn't agree more with this fact.

The problem with the agency model in today's world is that far too many agencies suffer from decades of process paralysis.  Most agencies are unable to act quickly and shift their strategy on a dime because they have to review and debate the merits of ideas in meetings before they ever bring these ideas to the clients. To be honest, too many agencies are muddled in self-doubt from years of being second-guessed and having their ideas shot down.  Too many agencies are unwilling to go forward on a hunch, even if that hunch is based on years of experience and a rational set of observations.

Of course the agencies are not completely to blame; clients are almost as much at fault.  Most marketers are representing public companies and companies who answer to shareholders, which helps create a culture where mistakes are not tolerated.  This is easily reflected in the average length of a CMO's job term being about 18 months; how can you effect change in 18 months and not make a mistake or two?  What success can you truly see when you have no tolerance for risk and your ideas are diluted half-versions of how they were originally developed?  How can you trust the hunch of your agency partners when you are not empowered to take any risk?

The agency model is going to evolve, and in many cases is already evolving, to become more nimble, confident, and fluidly structured around a client's business.  We're seeing it happen daily as more agencies follow suit.  The best agencies are the ones where the ego is checked at the door and the objectives of the team are in lockstep with the objectives of the client. 

When process is reduced to the bare basics to get strong work out the door, profitability is a secondary concern to the client's needs.  Yet any smart businessperson will tell you that if you align with the client's needs first and you achieve them, profitability will come as well.   With good work comes good rewards!

But before I go too far down the rat-hole of complaining about agencies, let's get back to the original message that Matthews was conveying which resonated with me: that everything is moving faster.  Decisions need to be made faster.  Ideas need to be vetted faster.   The process behind the development of campaigns must be faster. Marketing is a consumer-centric discipline, and consumers are moving at the speed of light compared to most agencies. 

I agree that marketers and agencies are just as smart as they were in the past. I would probably even concede that they are potentially smarter, what with all the data they have at their fingertips, but the process for putting that intelligence into action is woefully outdated --and I applaud people like Matthews for calling it out.  If more agency people would awaken to this realization, I think we would indeed witness the rebirth and renaissance of the agency model.

Don't you agree?

5 comments about "Process Paralysis And The Need To Act Quickly (Sounds Like Fun)".
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  1. Scott Brinker from ion interactive, inc., November 25, 2009 at 10:15 a.m.

    Fantastic article, Cory -- I couldn't agree more as well.

    As a software developer in this space (we offer a platform to let marketers manage landing pages and conversion paths associated with their exploding bevy of advertising-based traffic sources), I think our #1 benefit is cycle-speed.

    The tools exist out there to give marketers a tremendous boost in how quickly they can act and react -- now the shift hinges on adapting the marketing culture to take advantage of this new clockspeed.

  2. Jeff Pugel from Essex Digital Platform, November 25, 2009 at 10:27 a.m.

    Great article.

    As a planner with 12+ years in the business, my gut is right about 90% of the time. When decisions need to be made quickly, there isn't always the time to do a formal analysis.

    Unfortunately what I have seen is that many people are unwilling, or afraid?, of making a decision with their name attached to it for the fear that if it fails, they will be associated with its failure. In the dog-eat-dog culture of some companies, the risk-reward equation is sometimes out of balance and as a result every one plays it conservatively.

    In today's environment you sometimes need to stick your neck out on the line when a quick decision needs to be made. As I have always told my team, I rather you make a decision and it turns out wrong rather than make no decision at all.

  3. Stuart Dornfield, November 25, 2009 at 10:33 a.m.

    I think Cory needs to know that just as there are different types of clients, there are different types of ad agencies. Any good retail shop has the ability to "turn on a dime" for its clients. Radio spots can be written and produced within 2 days. TV spots within one week. Websites designed and programmed within 45 days. And print campaigns even faster. I ran an ad agency for 22 years and for the most part, the process problem was not how fast we could create and produce good work, but how fast decisions could be made on the client side (and how quickly we got paid!) Sure, there are many Madison Avenue-type agencies who move at a snail's pace and lack the nimbleness that Cory talks about. But in large part it's not the ad agencies, at least not the retail-minded ones, where the process gets bogged down. It's the middle-managers, the advertising directors, marketing directors, and CMO's who are risk adverse, unable to execute smart marketing ideas in a timely fashion, and the many silos within the corporate culture that slow down the process. We need a rebirth of clients who have the skill and ability to embrace agency ideas and execute them brilliantly. It took me two years to convince Office Depot to promote "Back To School" not because it wasn't a great sales-generating idea, but because no one in the office products category had every done it before. Same with promoting Holiday Gift Giving and Cause-Marketing. The company's management was slow to move. Yet it's funny how quick a client will kill a good idea, isn't it!

  4. Jonathan Mirow from BroadbandVideo, Inc., November 25, 2009 at 11:18 a.m.

    Yeah, pretty much descirbes the state of most of corporate media. Years ago I worked for MediaOne (sold to AT&T then Comcast) and every change made to any of our 11 web sites had to go by the "process change board" - which consisted primarily of project managers who didn't have a clue about the web and treated everything as if it were going to be engraved in stone for all eternity. As early as 2003 we (now BroadbandVideo, Inc.) were turning "video classifieds" in 24 hours and can now aquire talent, staff and begin webcasting a new show in less than a week. You wanna know what I learned about the web in the early days that still resonates? Quick or dead, because seriously folks, there are lots of smart people out there.

  5. Steve Poppe from What's The Idea?, November 25, 2009 at 2:19 p.m.

    Cory, your points are all well made and well taken. I would submit that strong corporate leadership is an antidote for paralysis. Client-side and agency side. Following that, a tight brand strategy always helps the navel-gazers make decisions. Thanks for a great piece.

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