Posts filed under ‘agencies’
Over my career I must have been exposed to more agency credentials presentations than can be entirely healthy. All three integrated agencies I worked for were rather keen on reinventing themselves every 18 months, complete with a new positioning to go with their new identity. And I’ve latterly had reason to look over more than half dozen agency creds in the name of New Business Planning Support as a freelance.
For businesses that sell brand positioning, it’s scary how few of these were properly differentiating or otherwise persuasive. Agency XYZ is integrated, puts insight at the heart of everything they do and treats every brand as an individual / applies their special planning tool to every brand [delete as appropriate]. Sigh.
It’s Marketing 101, but you need a something to talk about. An agency might be really good at a particular sub-sector (say, B2B SME consultancy or shopper marketing in grocery) or spend a fortune on cutting edge data analysis to improve the measurability of marketing spend. They might have a trophy cabinet overflowing with IPA awards (we create work that is demonstrably effective) or own more yellow pencils than the average primary school (we create work that is demonstrably creative).
A positioning needs to own a position – and it’s no good if your positioning, decided upon after much internal soul-searching, is near-identical to every other mid-sized agency out there. How are clients supposed to know if you might be right for them?
Agencies seem to be missing out a crucial stage when they revise their positioning – competitor analysis. And if agencies genuinely do believe that what they do is so close to what everyone else is claiming to do, they’d better have a fundamental re-think of their business asap, or they might not have an agency to position in the future.
You may have already deduced from the lack of posts from me recently that I’ve just surfaced from spending a month immersed in a major pitch (*crosses fingers, waits for phone call*).
unpublished creative work-in-progress for The Pitch by Empire Design taken from AMC’s website
Does your agency pitch, or do you make a point of never doing so? Do you seek out pitches or actively avoid them? Hate them or love them?
I love them – when else do you get a chance to take a flyer and move something quickly from brief to insight to almost-execution, without having to wait for endless sign-offs and with no helpful ‘tweaks’ from the client’s assistant’s secretary? There’s no time to second-guess yourself, you have to have the courage of your convictions. And it’s probably the only time you’ll see the agency directors binding presentations or getting the pizza order in.
I don’t think AgencyLand will ever break free entirely from pitches as a format for selecting a new agency. It’s a Big Deal and a decision that could make or break a marketing director’s career (or even their employer’s entire business) is too big a question to leave to a chemistry meeting, a list of industry awards and a showreel.
In today’s mixed up, fast-moving world, having the right people and the right resources on your brand’s side is more important than ever. And sometimes a pitch is the only way for a client to truly see how a team works on a Big Thing. It’s all very well giving an agency a little project by way of a test, but you’ll never really see how their creative and planning teams can fly based on a small-scale DM piece.
So I think (or hope) that pitches are here to stay. They do cost a fortune and it’d be nice if clients coughed up a bit towards the cost of participating, but their very format encourages the production of some really good work.
As a freelancer, 90% of my work comes from Yorkshire agencies – and it’s a small pond up here. There are probably only eight agencies capable of handling seven figure accounts, half of whom specialise in shopper marketing and/or retail. So the big FMCG and retail clients based up here tend to split their work among them. Which means there is a heck of a lot of client overlap, client conflict and inter-agency musical desks that goes on. Most people in the Yorkshire agency scene have worked on Asda, Morrisons and/or DFS at one point or another.
The problem is when it comes to freelance support – and it works both ways. If a freelancer (creative, digital or planner) has just been working on Morrisons, then they probably shouldn’t be working on Asda. And likewise you can’t have a freelancer working on Asda simultaneously across two different agencies.
But what about when a freelancer is working on Retailer A for one agency, then gets asked to work on Different Unconnected Client B for another agency – who also work for Retailer A? Where does conflict end and simply an expectation of professional behaviour begin? As you may have guessed by now, I’ve just missed out on a long and juicy freelance planning gig because of the above example.
I honestly believe that if agencies want the best fish in a small pond, they (and possibly also their clients) will have to be a bit more flexible about who they’re swimming with. After all, if the trusted partners, agency-and-friends model is the way forward in delivering client’s needs, surely we’re allowed to share friendship groups?
There’s been a lot of fuss on ad-industry-outside-the-M25-magazine The Drum’s website this week about the latest ad from Go Outdoors. They’ve given it their Marketing Weak award, which “highlights an advert for its sheer uselessness”.
In the comments below the piece, opinion is divided between those who think an un-creative ad should never grace the ad breaks and those pointing out Go Outdoor’s rather healthy ROIs from their un-creative campaigns.
Over the years, up here in The Regions, the majority of the campaigns I’ve worked on have been hampered by some combination of low-budget, inflexible client, inexperienced client, too many layers of client decision making, tight timescale, over-regulation, and under-par agency creative or account handling. Sometimes the fact that anything got out of the door on time at all was a near miracle.
When you’re hampered by some/all of the above and need to somehow crowbar in the latest sale message as well there’s bound to be some creative sacrifice. The kind of campaigns I work on don’t result in yellow pencils or Clios. But I make sure that they’re creatively the best they could be, given the circumstances. And they tend to have very healthy ROIs.
I think the role of communication is sharply splitting into two – very creative awareness and brand building for big brands that need national recognition (sometimes only a creative groundbreaker in the X Factor break, a 48 sheet campaign and a funky gamified website will do) and more modest tactical and/or targeted activity for brands with marketing budgets that don’t run to mid seven figures.
I don’t mind that I’ll probably never have a truly, award-winningly creative and instantly well-known campaign in my portfolio. Or that I’m lacking an IPA effectiveness award since I haven’t got a spare £2k down the back of the sofa to enter them. I’ve got some very pleasing stats and sales figures instead – and that’s what makes clients (and ultimately their agencies) happy.
My elderly Dad has been in and out of hospital a lot recently (long story, he’s doing better now thanks). It’s a small local hospital and the staff are all nothing less than amazing.
Not just amazing on the nursing/cleaning/admin-ing front, they are all lovely people who take the time to chat and connect with him and will bend over backwards to help him out (can you tell it’s a private hospital and not the sadly time strapped and cash starved NHS?).
He’s in there twice a day for drug treatments at the moment and it’s clear to me that he’s made to feel like the most important, most welcome person in the building every time he walks (on two sticks) through the door.
Agency staff and freelancers – could you say that about your clients?
Do you know what they prefer to drink at different times of the day? Do you know where they’re going after they leave your meeting and therefore how much of a hurry they’re in? Do you drop everything when they arrive for a meeting to get them comfortably settled? Could you instantly recall what happened in your last four get-togethers? Do you know what the next big challenge on their horizon is and how apprehensive they are about it? Do you pop in to say Hello when they’re in the building even if they haven’t come to see you?
No? Perhaps you need to collar someone who works here and ask them how to find out.
I’ve always been reasonably lucky when dealing with suppliers and freelancers. Be it fieldwork, transcription, creative, visualiser or viewing facilities they’ve usually delivered what they said they would, when they would – and sometimes gone well above and beyond the call of duty too.
I only realised just how lucky I’ve been earlier this year when an agency brought me in to help clear up the mess caused by a supplier over promising and hopelessly under delivering due to inexperience. It also brought home to me just how potentially dangerous it can be for any business to try and wing it in an area that isn’t a specialism of theirs.
I’ve never been a fan of winging it. I’ve never been one to say “that’ll be a nice problem to have” when faced with a client brief and no idea of how to actually fulfil it. In fact, one of the joys of freelance life is being able to turn down projects that are outside my comfort zone. I’ve had a lot less sleepless nights and anxiety related stomach cramps since I gained the authority to say No to unsuitable work.
For the agencies and suppliers whose client base, business plan or financial position insists that they find a way of dealing with every client brief that lands, Amelia’s ‘Agency and Friends’ model, ‘a loose network of partners, developers and producers who can work alongside the core agency hub’ seems to be the way forward. Once AgencyLand bites the bullet and ‘fesses up that not everyone who works on the client’s business will be a full time agency employee but might instead be a close ‘friend’, getting the right people involved at the right time in order to do the job properly will become a lot easier.
I’ve been reading a lot about work-life balance recently, including this piece in Campaign (paywall, sorry) by Gail Gallie of Fallon London advocating a better deal for working mums in the ad industry and this enormous essay in Atlantic Magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter (the former director of policy planning at the US State Department) about why women still can’t have it all.
Both these pieces talk about work-life balance as it affects working mums and family life. But I think the professional industries in general (and AdLand in particular) have created a working environment that is pretty incompatible with having any kind of a life, whether that involves children or not.
I don’t have children (long story), but as a freelance the thought of ever having to go back to a five-days-a-week agency job makes me feel physically sick. Now I’ve seen what’s on the other side of the fence, I don’t think I could cope with the insane hours, short notice disruption to non-working hours and the stress levels.
It’s not just me being soft. One agency friend has cancelled lunch or dinner with me four times since March due to work commitments. Such has their role completely taken over their life that I don’t think they’ll be staying there much longer, to the agency’s loss. I know of three friends (three!) that left the industry entirely because they were so stressed that their hair was falling out. Another high-flying account director downsized to an office based account management job they could do standing on their head as their current job was destroying their life.
Note that none of the people I mentioned above are mums. This industry is not just incompatible with family life, it is, in its current format, incompatible for most people with having a life. And if we just make the work environment easier for working mums, their child-less colleagues left still dealing with the client crisis at 8pm (been there! a lot!) will be even more likely to bail on the industry.
You could argue that ANY office-based, medium-powered, white-collar job is in fact incompatible with having a healthy, balanced life. But considering that our industry is supposed to have creativity, inspiration and connection at its heart, we’re currently pretty rubbish at making sure our people are both in a fit state to embrace this – and willing to stick with it.
I explained my theory about Rollercoaster Agencies to someone in AgencyLand last week:
In any agency market (be it all-the-agencies-in-Yorkshire, all-the-cool-digital-agencies or all-the-ones-big-enough-to-handle-a-multinational-FMCG-client) there will always be one or two businesses at the top of the tree doing really well – creatively and/or financially, although the two are of course inevitably connected. And there will also always be one or two outfits that are wobbling. But it’s rare for one agency to keep the top spot for more than a couple of years.
Whatever the level or location, as an agency head count gets beyond the tipping point (which seems to be over 150 round here) there will always be times when they have to financially speculate on future needs, like moving offices, investing in IT and HR, buying in a complimentary business like digital or research or staffing up on Planners, Heads of Client Service and the like.
But it only takes one big client loss to make an all-equipped, all-singing, all-dancing agency wobble. And the bigger the agency, the harder work it is to stabilise that wobble.
I’ve come to this conclusion because as agencies get bigger they tend to invest in Planning (i.e. my entire employment history). And as they hit the top of the curve and start to shrink, the redundancies start (ditto, except mostly I jumped first). I worked out with a Planner friend the other day that I’d spent half my career expecting to get made redundant at any minute. That’s hardly an environment for breeding committed, motivated staff and probably explains why freelancing suits me better :)
So my top tip for any job hunters out there is to find a potential employer who is being cranked up the rollercoaster, not hurtling back down again.
I’ve been unsuccessfully hunting for a new horse since January (my current one has been retired due to arthritis). In the process I’ve discovered that there’s a lot of language in horse ads that needs decoding, for example would suit experienced rider means ‘the horse is a total nutcase’ and if you read spooks occasionally assume the horse in question treats every hack as a visit to the Scary Spooky Lane of Hell.
But agencies and their credentials documents are no better. Integrated could as easily mean ‘the four of us aren’t very good at anything in particular’ as ‘we have a dozen shit hot specialists for any discipline you care to mention and they all work as one seamless team’.
Media Neutral could be taken to imply ‘best advice’ but may well really mean ‘we don’t care how stupid your marketing plan is, we’ll happily implement it for a fee’.
And as for the Special Unique Strategic Agency Process (which will probably be visualised as either a flow chart or some kind of wheel), in most cases the agency is really saying ‘We think we do thinking. We’d like to be paid for it please’.
Happy hunting, clients.