ad agencies

The Full Service Publisher.


Full Service PublisherFirst there’s understanding the client’s objective:  Which feature of their product do they need customers to better understand?  To which competitor are they trying to compare themselves favorably?  Then we’ve got to get busy with the message, the talent that’s going to deliver it and the actual drafting of copy and shooting of video.

Now it’s time to figure out how to scientifically distribute the message – media planning essentially – and how to measure and analyze the outcomes.  Round it all out with great customer service and the occasional look at important trends and big new ideas.

Sounds like a great recipe for a winning ad agency, right?  Well….

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The top of this post might once have described the cadence of a full service agency.  But today this kind of soup-to-nuts delivery of service is just as likely to come from a publisher. The agency business today is an embarrassment of niches:  one shop does the planning, another the buying, a third the digital, a trading desk takes on the program stuff.  Within a given holding company, there are even more agencies for creative, multicultural marketing, events, shopper marketing and more.  There are even agencies to help the client navigate all those other agencies.  Full service?  Not in decades.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does a marketer.  The space where client/agency ‘partnerships’ used to grow is increasingly being harvested by media companies and platforms.  The idea isn’t new:  I wrote about it in this space back in 2010.   What’s changed, though, is the urgency and speed with which erstwhile sales organizations are stepping up to the plate.  Not surprising, though.  The availability of ad “inventory” has broken wide open and its relative value has fallen dramatically. To make a living – to stay alive – publishers had to find new ways to create value.  And those new ways look a lot like the old ways that agencies used to do it.


Getting to the Client.


Gettign to the ClientThe headline for this week’s post is one of those sneaky little bits of irony.  A lot of us spend a lot of time and effort “getting to the client.”  But when we do, we don’t end up “getting to the client.”  Let me explain.

Many digital media and tech sellers work diligently to close transactional deals with buyers.  We respond to their RFPs, try to decipher conflicting signals and contradictory requests, and – to the best of our ability – bring them proactive ideas and opportunities.  But when these efforts predictably collapse in despair and recrimination, our boss inevitably says “we’ve got to get to the client!” And he’s right.  Well…half right.

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We take the cue and pursue the client meeting.  But, fatally, we don’t bother to upscale the agenda.  We bring the client the exact same buying decision that got turned down or ignored at the agency.  The client either ignores our outreach, sends us back to the agency or politely listens to our pitch and then does…nothing.  Without realizing it, we brought this customer an issue or opportunity that was below their pay-grade.  We’ve treated them like the appeals court…asking them to overturn the verdict that we lost in the lower court.  To the client, this is no opportunity:  if they change the outcome and put you on the plan, they’ve created a whole new set of problems – an alienated agency, political risk and potentially a shit-storm of POVs and meetings that they really don’t need.

Don’t just get to the client:  get to the client.  Make sure that your client-side agenda is squarely focused on business issues and marketing opportunities.  Don’t help them spend an existing budget; help them justify a new one.  Don’t show them how you’ll reach their current customer; introduce them to the one they haven’t yet met.   Work with the media planning team to fill existing orders: help the client decide what to order next.

I’ve always believed that big decision makers only want to make big decisions.  If you’re going to knock on the client’s door, don’t show up with an agenda that’s two sizes too small.  If you do, she’ll send you packing.

And she’ll be right to do so.  Totally right.


The End of the Hose.


God bless Digiday for posting an interview with an anonymous 25-year-old media planner this week.  We’ve all so casually invoked this guy’s name and qualities for so many years and I, for one, think it’s high time we heard from him directly. The interview is not long; and while there are a few admissions that will raise eyebrows, the thing I found most compelling is the tone itself.  Working in what’s supposed to be a creative business that also happens to be growing by double digits, our young friend comes off like a mid-level Russian bureaucrat; unenthusiastic, indifferent and resigned to the nature of the system that feeds him.  He is Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man” for the digital age.

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Recalling the early days: “When I first started out in the industry (like, what, two years ago?)  I would try to meet with everybody who pitched me. But after a while, it just gets overwhelming, so a lot of the time I just ignore them now. I rarely answer my phone.”

Everybody’s Doing It: “We’re not allowed to accept trips, but people do. There are ski trips in Utah, invitations to summerhouses out on Long Island, and even to music festivals. People higher up in the company take the trips, so I don’t think anyone’s in a position to tell you you’re fired if you do, too.”

Tangible is in the Eye of the Beholder: “We have limits on the value of what we’re allowed to accept as gifts. We’re often sent gift cards for retailers like Starbucks, but then there’s the ‘tangible meetings.’ Usually, somebody will offer to take you to do something, like make sneakers.”

On Automation: Our protagonist goes on to talk about the agency trading desks being “…part of the team, rather than a vendor-type relationship.” Nonetheless there are seen as purely a performance tool, and “Either they perform, or they don’t.”

On balance, there are several points at which our young correspondent ascends a bit to higher moral ground.  Relying on the same handful of reps who “take care of you” as they move from property to property is also about service to the accounts.  In the end, he (or she — Digiday is carefully gender-neutral throughout) is not an example of corruption, but rather one of resignation; a young Dilbert-in-the-making.  Perhaps it’s because he senses what’s ahead. If the holding companies’ master plan comes to fruition, much of this young planner’s current work will be done by machines within three years.  It’s nice to think that he’ll be freed up to pursue more creative, strategic work on behalf of clients at that point.  But it sure doesn’t sound like he’s being prepared for that transition.

Few digital sellers will be at all surprised by what they read here, but they should be more than a little alarmed.  This is the individual on whom most of your sales strategy is based.  If you’re making a living managing RFPs, then your days may be as numbered as those of Planner X.  He represents the end of the hose, and we’re already seeing less and less flow throw through him.  You can shake that hose all you want.  But in an age of consolidation and automation, we’d best learn how to turn on the faucet instead.


Agency, Heal Thyself.


This week a good friend sent a provocative Ad Age article around to several people in the industry; the topic was marketers’ new-found tendency to throw their agencies under the bus.  (“In Pressure Cooker, Marketers Lay Blame on Advertising.”)

As I read through the many complaints about this or that client publicly dissing the work of their agencies, a thought occurred to me:

This wouldn’t be happening if Hal Riney were alive.  Or Martin Sorrell, for that matter.

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The simple truth is that in the relentless pursuit of margin growth and short term victories to drive cash flow, agencies long ago stopped defining themselves.  No, the good old days were never really as good as we remember them, but you can’t dispute that in past decades ad agencies had personalities.  Some were defined by the “strong man” who led them:  Riney, Jerry Della Femina, Jay Chiat, Bill Bernbach. (In at least one case – Mary Wells Lawrence – a “strong woman.”)  McCann Erickson was “Truth Well Told” and Doyle Dane Bernbach regularly put out strong, stark creative messages that were – for the time – rather shocking.

Today I think it would be difficult for many agency employees to accurately and simply describe the DNA of the place they work.  What are the true hallmarks of an OMD, a UMI, an MEC?  Perhaps Digitas and Razorfish and Starcom all have well-defined characters – but how many of us understand them? Indeed, it’s now the rare shop that rises above the sea of anonymity and sameness.  Like, for instance, Crispin Porter Bogusky.  Say what you will about the creative excesses of the place (the creepy Burger King dude, e.g.), but CPB has a sense of swagger….and they don’t ever seem to be hurting for work.

If agencies allow themselves to be seen as temporary commerce hubs – routers for ad messages and billings – then they are complicit in their own commoditization.  I started my career at an agency (albeit early in the first Reagan term) and have spent many years prowling their halls.  And I can’t help but think that a shop with a strong sense of itself would not be so easily pushed around.

I welcome and encourage all the comments I’m going to get about how I’m wrong about this or that agency, or how my views are hopelessly naïve and dated.   But all I ask is that my agency friends circulate this post internally and allow it to provoke an important discussion:  Are you, in fact, only as good as the accounts you have on contract right now?  Or is there something more you to which you can aspire?


The Trouble with ‘Spaces’


A few weeks back, Ad Age asked its online readers a provocative question:   “Do you think ‘agency’ is a dirty word?”   In its “Agency Issue” published the same week, one headline asked “When Did ‘Agency’ Become the Thing Nobody Wanted to Be?”  while another called out “Adland’s Identity Crisis.”

At the same time, a quick glance at the digital world tells us that the term “network” is experiencing a similar wave of dis-association.   Maybe it’s the stress that exchanges and Demand Side Platforms have wrought;  or perhaps we’re just an industry that hates the old and familiar.  Whatever reason, the best-known “artists formerly known as ad networks” are dropping the N word from their corporate identities and banishing it from their PowerPoint decks.

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The irony, of course, is that both “agency” and “network” were once absolutely magnetic.  “Agency” connoted a powerful intersection of creativity and profit, while “Network” carried the whiff of multiplying value and global ambition.  Now of course, things are different.  But as it’s gone for these now lonely nouns, so it will go for so many other popular labels.  “DSP” is already losing its luster after just a few months in the spotlight.  “Data” – which had the look and feel of a winner for a couple of years – now seems more like an insoluble quagmire of complexity.

So what’s UP with all this anyway?  I have a theory.

While every company claims to be unique, the overwhelming majority live within the friendly confines of “a space,” offering some nuanced claim of superiority over its “spacemates.”  Maybe this happens because VCs and banks like to categorize their potential investments.  At first capital and then advertising dollars flow to a space. It becomes crowded, then noisy, and then it eventually cools.  Ultimately it ends up being ridiculed and even reviled.   (Remember when “portal” was the best thing you could be?)  It took decades for this cycle to play out with “the agency space;”  soon we’ll be measuring the lifespan of a space in weeks.

The best companies are those that refused to be categorized.  Instead, they self-define through the real problems they solve for customers.  Google helps you find stuff really fast.  Facebook helps you stay connected to the people you know.  Netflix gives you the media you want right now.  It seems simple when you look at it this way.  So why don’t more companies avoid “spaces” and cling instead to the consumer or business issues they help solve?

I guess it really comes down to vision, leadership and discipline, which are all too scarce.