Some of this happens because many have different ideas as to what an online agency should do. But I believe the brunt of this instability comes from people not understanding how they can get the best work for their money from an ad agency.
Do You Really Need a New Agency?
Changing horses in midstream is a serious pain in the behind. It’s expensive to boot. Before you start sending out RFPs for a new account pitch, you might consider asking yourself whether your company has done all it can to make the existing agency successful.
When advertisers ask agencies to act merely as stewards for the next iteration of media buying – their innovative ideas ignored – they quickly become very, very expensive clerks. When advertisers starve their agencies of their creative purposes, the relationship will invariably head south.
Advertisers can starve agencies by denying them other resources as well. Obviously, lowering budgets can adversely affect agency efficiency. When an agency counts on making a certain percentage of the billings, it can find itself losing money on a shrinking account. This always leads to staff and service cuts, which the advertiser sometimes doesn’t take very well.
Attention can also be the limiting resource. Marketing departments that remain understaffed and focused on merely getting work out the door, will often foist scut work onto the agency. This misuse of an important resource is like wearing Bruno Magli’s to get across a marsh. You can do it, but don’t be surprised with the agency starts staffing your account with “work boots.” (Agencies can encourage this by staffing accounts with recent college graduates who are mostly good for scut work).
Finally, when an advertiser’s senior contact with an agency doesn’t quite have the management clout to agree to innovative new marketing ideas, the agency quickly learns it’s not useful to bother thinking up such creative solutions.
All of these different factors can contribute to a gradual decline of agency service. Under normal circumstances, this leads to a new pitch. The incumbent agency gets kicked out, and a new, superior-feeling agency comes in. Until the same systemic problems slowly sour that relationship as well.
You can see certain advertisers having these problems. They’re the ones who show up repeatedly in the “Currently seeking” lists in the trade magazines. They appear every six to twelve months, and you’ll find that often the incumbent agency decides not to bother to re-pitch the account. These guys should be avoided like a hitchhiker waving a bloody ax.
(I’ve saved myself a lot of trouble in seeking new business by calling up agency heads who decided not to join a pitch for one of their existing accounts. I’ve found them to be surprisingly open and blunt.)
Recharging the Relationship
New agency pitches are enormously expensive for all parties involved. Months go by without new ad work being done. Before calling it quits on the agency, advertisers should set about a deliberate program of recharging the relationship.
They should tell the agency management that they considered firing the company, but that they hope they can come to a new understanding. This does not mean a different compensation structure or squeezing out additional agency staffing – it means a resetting of the way the two companies work together.
Usually, this involves rotating staff at both the agency and client to give some fresh perspectives and to prevent the process from falling into dysfunctional grooves. They agency should be asked to make a list of grievances that might be addressed to better the work. Likewise, the old staff from the advertiser’s side should draw up a list of agency behaviors that need improvement.
The advertiser should pretend that this is a new agency, complete with a new campaign, a new budget and a newly-reset open mind.
Advertisers hiring new agencies usually get better service from the new agency mostly due to the fact that the new relationship causes the advertiser to be more generous and open. New business pitches often involve new campaigns with new and larger budgets. Clients are open to new ideas during the pitch process. The advertiser needs to bring this same freshness to the existing relationship.
And, of course, the agency must recognize that they must play their part as well. An agency given a second chance to reinvigorate the marketing doesn’t deserve a third.