Apr 25, 2008

It Takes Two (Or Why Changing Your Agency's Paradigm Also Means Changing Your Clients')

Many people, myself included, have been blogging about how agencies need to step up their game and expand what they do beyond the usual TV spot-print ad-banner-microsite paradigm.

But after reading this very thoughtful post from Paul Isakson, it hit me that we can’t really do any of this until our clients decide that they’re going to pay us for it.

I mean it’s all well and good to say that we need to look at user experience as a whole and that 20 minutes on an endless phone loop can undo $20 million worth of advertising and how clients need to incorporate design into every consumer touch point and all that. But if clients don’t want to hear that from us, and more importantly, don’t want to pay us for it, then we’re just howling at the moon.

I mean we can reinvent agencies all we want. Do away with traditional art director/copywriter creative departments as per Joe Jaffe’s recent suggestion. We just need to find someone who’s going to hire the resulting entity.

Because most clients aren’t set up that way. Bigger ones, anyway. They’re all about “hiring ‘best in class’ partners in every discipline.” Which may have worked 25 years ago, but now basically results in a bunch of overlapping vendors all stepping on each other’s toes and doing what they can to defend their own little piece of turf. So we can suggest changes in store design to our clients. But if they already have a store design agency, they’re not going to care what we think. Or want to pay us for it. (And if the idea does start to get traction, the store design agency sure isn’t going to be too happy about it and will do what it can to sabotage it.)

So how do we accomplish this thing that desperately needs to be accomplished? In bits and pieces, I’m afraid. We need to find those companies who don’t have what I called “The Armies Of ‘No’” in place, companies who are willing to make marketing a priority and move beyond the outdated structures. We need to keep showing our clients ideas beyond our usual scope, knowing that they will likely be met with rejection (at best) or scorn (at worst) because we need to show them that their agency—whether it’s a digital shop or a traditional one—can give them the thinking they need. And we need to stop acting like vendors and start acting like partners. Because ultimately, that’s going to lead to greater profits.

It’s not an easy path, but at the risk of sounding like a “Successories” poster, nothing that’s worth it ever is.


Anonymous said...

and this is how agencies deliver on that "we're your trusted partner" jargon.

What do the most important people, consultants, friends and peers do, after all? They get us to grow. Even if it's a hard change to navigate.

Agencies need to be very ego-less in saying "Hey, we're having to change, too. But if we don't push ourselves and our partners to change, then it's not just your business and our business that suffers, it's all business." It's the realization of a very self-evident fact, really.

But then again, I'm not in the ad biz. I do however, often ask other consultants (and myself) what a trusted partner really is, and where the value really lies.

note: if this comment appears more than once I apologize but your blog is giving me a time of it today ;-).

Anonymous said...

very true. it's a bit like your hairdresser offering to paint your house because you're starting to go bald.

but the reality is that agencies creativity can be channeled into lots of areas. but until you have some credibility in that area, ie until you've done something, it's all just talk.

crispin porter being the most salient example with their BK video games etc. "they know how to do video games, have you done any?" etc.

(agree with previous. for some reason commenting is hard. don't want to end up like agencyspy ;-)

HighJive said...

Sorry in advance for the unfocused and verbose nature of this comment.

Not sure I completely agree with the thrust of this essay. Yes, it takes two to tango. But advertising agencies—particularly BDAs—arrived way too late to the dance. And it’s unlikely they’ll get invited at this point. Advertising agencies allowed digital to become a below-the-line function. From a marketing perspective, digital is like direct marketing, promotions, event marketing, etc. And more importantly, digital has established itself like direct marketing; that is, it’s all very results-driven and the practitioners are quick to demonstrate ROI (whether it’s all bullshit or not). Plus, they are far more tactical than strategic/conceptual, despite any arguments to the contrary. What I’m getting at is digital works off a different business model than advertising. Clients aren’t unwilling to buy different solutions. In fact, they are buying different solutions. Every major client employs digital shops, direct marketing shops, promotional shops, event shops, etc. The clients simply haven’t been given any reason to consolidate it all under one agency roof. Mostly because advertising agencies have failed to figure out how to put all the pieces together in a way that will be mutually profitable to the key players. CP+B is one of the few agencies that was smart enough to establish itself differently from jump. Goodby comes close too. But that’s about it. There are plenty of examples of agencies that merged with disastrous results. There are even a lot of shops creating an illusion of integration, but insiders will quietly admit it’s all a sham. Think Draftfcb. Or Euro RSCG. On top of that, BDAs have become very obsessed over billable hours. So your suggestion of presenting work outside of scope won’t fly, especially with the CFOs. In the end, most advertising agencies are incapable of offering services outside of their scope and expertise—and what’s more, they don’t have the skills to do it better than the specialist shops. On the flipside, the specialist shops aren’t capable of offering services outside of their scope—because most of them don’t have the skills to do advertising better than the advertising agencies. Advertising Age named Tribal DDB Global Agency Network of the Year, but anyone who knows anything will confirm DDB is not about to let Tribal overtake them. Tribal DDB was certainly as deserving of the honor as any advertising agency, but they are no more “complete” than any BDA out there. Clients are willing to tango, and they are tangoing (is tangoing a word?). They’re just doing it with a number of dancing partners. They’re partnering with the best-of-class dancers in each discipline.

Alan Wolk said...

@CK & TSR: My apologies for Blogger's giving you trouble. I know that Blogger seems to particularly harrass CK for some unexplained reason. I changed the settings for how people can comment now, which will hopefully make things easier.

@CK: Pushing is good but too often marketing departments are not empowered to do anything about the push. In other words, they may well agree with you, but have no power to do anything about it. Which isn't to say we shouldn't try...

@TSR: Love the barber example. It really is about finding a client who loves us enough to let us try. And about being flexible enough to understand our limitations.

@HJ: Excellent synopsis of why big agencies have failed at integration. But for purposes of this conversation, I'm not even thinking that those kinds of agencies might be in the picture, for all the reasons you've stated.

I'm talking smaller, more flexible start-ups, new shops who actually could do a good job of helping a client by coming in and saying "you don't need ads, you need a new layout for your stores" or "rather than spend $20 million on TV, let us design a social media program that improves your customer service position." - that's what an agency that wants to be a marketing partner/consultant should be doing these days, but few clients are set up to handle those sorts of interactions. They hire an agency because they want TV spots or banners or search optimization.

Naked is, at some level, trying to fill that role, by being a planning-only shop and telling clients what they need to be doing from a marketing perspective, but they don't actually handle the fulfillment of their recommendations.

The problem with the "best dancers" strategy is that it lets the client function as the "architect: or general contractor of the marketing plan, doling out work to sub-contractors to fit a blueprint they themselves have created.

In an ideal world, the agency would take on that architect/GC role as opposed to their current role of sub-contractor: they install the TV commercials or the banners. But they never get to design the house. (How's that for stretching a metaphor!)

All that's needed is a client willing to let their agency assume that role.

HighJive said...

Well, in that case, I’m with you. And most of the good-to-great smaller shops and start-ups are trying to do exactly what you say (and maybe because as “challenger brands” to other agencies, they must define a unique difference). But the biggest issue remains finding the right way to bill for the efforts. Also, clients are like everyone else—there is a natural tendency to pigeonhole and try to define something by one characteristic. Maybe it’s still residual thinking from the USP days or the Trout & Ries positioning era. But in the end, everyone wants you to define yourself by one primary area of expertise.

So what is the gist of your essay? Are you saying smaller shops are better suited to be legitimate “integrated” agencies?

I still believe the problem from the agency perspective is finding workers who are truly multi-professional.

HighJive said...

Ad Age sort of addresses the topic here.

Alan Wolk said...

@HJ: "Gist" of my essay is that while a lot of people are preaching that agencies need to change what they do in order to fit the new world, that can only happen if clients simultaneously change their expectations of what they want from their agencies.

If either side changes unilaterally, we run into the issues of compensation, expectations and all that.

Hence the title "It Takes Two..."

(BTW: Not sure if it was intentional or Freudian, but your line "clients are like everyone else—there is a natural tendency to pigeonhole and try to define something by one characteristic" is a perfect summation of much of what you have to say on your MultiCult Classics blog.

melleekat said...

So while I'm a little late into this conversation, I've something to add to the paradigm.

I agree that while the agency-side has the challenge of being able to think (and sell!) outside of their scope of expertise, the internal client-side challenges to meet this transition go beyond the client's ability to think beyond hiring the "best in class" partners.

The internal client-side marketing structure is often just as broken and fragmented. Having now been on both sides of the party, the client-side challenges of being able to promote or integrate beyond your assigned channel (aka scope of expertise) are just as much of a barrier.

It is much deeper of an issue client-side than just a new way of thinking. It's a new way of approaching the marketing organization and until brand marketers are renaissance marketers, skilled as much on the channel-specific strategies as the brand strategies, then we are at an impasse. Without this evolution, we will continue to see channel expertise (be it PR, Promotions, Interactive, etc.) in-house as a separated function and staffed by former agency experts that have moved client-side.