The New PIN Code.

If you’re like me, when you’re in need of cash in the middle of a busy day you’re not all that picky about where you get it.  My eyes scan the horizon for three simple letters:  A-T-M.  I don’t much care about the brand and color scheme that surround the cash machine:  whether it’s Chase or Bank of America or People’s Bank or HSBC doesn’t really concern me.  All I know is, when I punch in the right set of numbers, money comes out and I’m on my way.  And while this cavalier approach to personal bank interaction works out pretty well, it also provides an unflattering metaphor about the relationship most of us have with ad agencies.

Often during my workshops, I’ll quiz a group of digital sellers about the agencies they call on regularly.  I ask about the agency’s mission, the key selling points on which it pitches new business.  I ask about its operating principles and values.  And I’m also curious about the quality and duration of its relationships with key accounts:  are they fresh?  healthy?  aging?  troubled?  Most of the time these questions are met with embarrassed silence and averted eyes.   Because far too often the agency is nothing more to us than an anonymous ATM machine.  Pay no attention to the brand or the color palette:  just punch in your numbers and wait for your cash.

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The truth is that when you call on an ad agency, you are really selling to two businesses.  Yes, it’s ultimately the client’s money that’s being spent, but it’s foolish to overlook the business objectives of the customer’s agent — the agency.  The shops you call on are businesses in and of themselves; they struggle with self-identity, strive to build brand cultures, try to motivate their people, and look for competitive advantage over their other agencies.  But do we take any of that into account as we’re considering our approach?  Or are we just punching buttons?

Here’s a simple quiz to underscore my point.  Consider five top agencies:  Starcom, Digitas, Universal McCann, PhD and OMD.   In their mission statements, one talks about “smart analytics combined with world class technology;”  another points to “a culture of thought leadership, creativity and innovation;”  one is all about “curiosity;”  one says “experience design is the future;” and the final one says it is “an integrated agency with a brand core.”   Could the members of your sales team collectively match each agency to its statement of values?  In this blog, I’ve taken agencies to task for not stressing their own values enough.  But I have to think that with just a little digging — with a little curiosity of his own — a given seller could know far more about the shops he calls on, increasing his own value and personal brand at the same time.

The most common complaint I hear from sellers about agencies is their tendency to commoditize the sales offerings, to take a simplistic, one-dimensional view of what sellers have to offer.  The shoe may not feel especially comfortable on the other foot, but there’s little doubt that it fits.

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?