ad agencies

The Holding Pen.


Five years ago in this space I wrote about The Illusion of Inclusion – the already-dysfunctional agency RFP process that gave digital sellers a false sense of progress and scuttled their sales activity before it could do any good.  Five years later the contours of the problem have shifted, but its impact is even worse.

In the scores of sales workshops and interviews I conduct, I still hear about well-intentioned sales teams pitching clients and conceiving ideas only to then get told We’ll be sending out RFPs in a few weeks.  More unfortunate still are the reps and organizations whose sole intent is to get a spot on that ill-fated RFP list.  In the intervening five years – as programmatic buying and consolidation have taken root — the number of winners has gotten shorter and the environment has gotten far less hospitable to non-platform publishers and sales orgs.  And participation in the process has gotten far more costly:  today’s RFP submission may include outside talent, events, technology, design, yield and more.  And all in service of a process in which you may never have had a chance.

Every sales leader wants a team that’s more proactive and strategic – a team that controls its own destiny.  But how to get there?  A sales workshop with Doug Weaver and Upstream Group is easier and more cost-effective than you might imagine.  Reach out to us today to discuss what you want for your team.  The consult is free.

Those whose offerings lean more into programmatic inventory, data and ad tech services may think none of this applies to you.  But it does.  We’re going to be looking at new vendors in Q1 and we’ll including you in that bake-off is just one example of you being effectively told to take a number.  The truth is we are all working harder to get the consideration of buying organizations that are operating short-handed and who don’t necessarily have the full confidence and commitment of their clients.  Being deferred or shuttled into an RFP process with dozens of competitors is professional quicksand.

What to do?

  • Have a clear business or marketing objective at the center of your proactive proposals and ideas.
  • Understand the client’s calendar and use important dates and time periods as leverage.
  • Qualify the decision makers you call on before you call on them, and then again at the close of each sales call.
  • Make it abundantly clear to your salespeople that getting on the RFP is not a victory; define the goals for every client or agency meeting very specifically.
  • Look hard at the time and resources you’re committing to answering RFPs; the creative talent and resources you’re expending would be better used in smart, proactive approaches to customers.
  • Be ambitious and unreasonable. If you’re only trying displace the weakest vendor on the list or just get a chance to show your stuff, there’s no room for you anymore.  Go big or don’t go at all.

We’ve been talking about the demise of the RFP for over a decade. Yet it survives.  And it’s become the holding pen for sellers, technologies and ideas that should instead be getting active, urgent consideration.  Accepting its failed promise is the worst strategic decision any of us can make.


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….

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by AppNexus. With AppNexus Mobile Solutions, you can access more demand partners than ever, gain precision insight into your inventory’s pricing and attract the ad spend of the world’s largest advertisers.

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.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Krux. Krux helps more than 180 of the world’s leading media companies and marketers grow revenue and deepen consumer engagement through more relevant, more valuable content, commerce, and media experiences. Industry analysts have repeatedly named Krux a leader and visionary in the data management space, citing its agility, innovation, and independence. Download the reports today to learn more.

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.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Evidon.  Evidon empowers consumers and businesses to see, understand and control data online. Find out how Evidon Encompass can help you improve performance, protect your data and comply with privacy regulations.

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.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by AMP, a Collective Product. AMP provides revenue analytics tools, a data management platform, audience analytics, reach extension opportunities, and a private exchange builder, all in one holistic system built on top of DFP. Learn more

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?