Unleash hidden value. Fix your broken agency relationships.
This week, we’re going to be talking about a multibillion-pound support network- The Marketing Agency. The first agency was reported to be in 1786 in the UK by a man names James Whyte and was broadly an advertising agency: the advent of copy writing. Interestingly, the first American agency was in your hometown Sam, in Philadelphia in 1850.
I did not know that, but it kind of makes sense that this was formerly the capital and has the constitution. So, makes sense that the first would be here.
So, that agency played ads produced by his clients in various different newspapers. Now, clearly, since then there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of multi-disciplinary agencies supporting all aspects of the marketing mix. They’ve gone through a life cycle of independents to boutiques, conglomerating around global networks. But satisfaction can be quite low. Often they can appear outdated, you hear quite a lot of grumblings about agency relationships, yet some of the most gifted people in the marketing industry come from marketing agencies and quite often they are the unsung heroes of transformation or advertising campaigns, and that is something that I think needs to be addressed.
What is the role of the agency and have they had their day?
No, they haven’t had their day. I am biased. I’ve had years on the client’s side and now working on the agencies side as a marketing transformation consultant so, I don’t believe they’ve had their day. And, I love them Chris; you use an agency as a partner with a particular set of expansive skills in supporting and solving your business issues -that’s the main one. It’s not just creating ads, it’s about solving your businesses and doing work that helps propel the initiative, the program and the product forward. The agencies I’ve had in my career have always had my back and they’ve helped with the most gnarly and trickiest business challenges.
When things work out, you’ll get noticed by the consumer or the customer- which is most critical. You’ll also get noticed by the marketplace and shareholders and then, ultimately, internally by your leadership, which is great. For me it’s happened throughout my career be it the PR agency, a company called Red PR in the UK that got momentum behind a really unsexy category of blood pressure monitors I was responsible for. The creative agency that helped me build the visual and in-store world to turn around the declining blender business in the UK. Then, in the US, an ad agency called Y&R that helped to turn around a declining major appliance business. Always running things around and helping make things better, but then there’s the dark side- when things don’t work.
I found it’s because there’s some sort of disfunction in the system. It could be in the clients side because so many marketers just don’t know how to work with their agencies and they’re a bit of a punching bag and they get treated more as a vendor than a partner, they get caught in the middle and for me that’s a bit of the challenge in the system that’s been perennial for quite a while now.
That makes sense. I think some of my best experiences are when they’ve met an unfulfilled need. Albion was our strategy and creative agency mentor driving the Absolute Radio brand throughout launch time. We had one hundred days to launch that and, without the input of the strategists and the creative director, we just wouldn’t have got there. There was this guy, Glynn Britton, brilliant guy, he did a lot of the strategy. Jason Goodman, he helped drive it through- and he really did do that. There was an incredibly hard working team and we would never have achieved that launch without them; a mixture of creativity, guts , certainly bravado, bringing hours to the problem to help solve it and making sure you had access to the top level of talent at the right time. They acted as your conscience, as the devil on your shoulder encouraging you to be a bit bolder as well and making sure that the job got done. So, I look back at that brand and I’m proud that a lot of imagery that we put in place is still being used ten years on.
It could be so different though, I think what they did well was they put team members in our office because we were moving so fast, we had a direct pipeline to the key strategic talent, and we worked until the job was done and it was seen as one team- one effort. So, I think that was a success but honestly Sam, I’ve been in many scenarios since where it feels like the exact opposite and I do question if it’s becoming increasingly difficult for agencies to support companies. Partly because it’s difficult for them to move fast enough, do they really have a greater level of expertise than the client company in the first place? Are they performing more of the role than just providing resources when it’s required? I think you can get caught calling on agencies when you don’t want them on your overhead book or don’t want marketing resources on your overheads, and also when you’re in a bind because you haven’t planned properly, and that’s never when you’re going to get the best out of your agency, although it can be quite lucrative for them.
Help Me Help You
I like them three points you put there and as you’re talking, I was listening, but I was drifting into a scene of Jerry Maguire, which is a film that every marketer should watch because there’s so many analogies, so many metaphors for the advertising industry and the relationship that clients have and, ultimately, Maguire is an agent. Someone you have to pay for their service and the athlete who is looking to get the best contract possible, or the bets deal, best work possible. For me, there’s a scene in there where Jerry says to Rod ‘help me help you.’ And it’s a famous scene that’s been played over and over but the sentiment behind this is that Rod thinks he should get the best work, the best contract, the best deal and Jerry says ‘listen, I say this with great respect to you’ and then he proceeds to say help me help you. The client is the problem. That film just sums up so much of what some of the challenges are through my career and I’ve had to get that kind of talk from my agency, and I remember early on in my career, I was working on the blood pressure monitor category and the PR agency came up with an idea, it went through the account manager, then the debt director, then the VP and the next thing I know I’m getting a call from the manging director of the company who believed in the idea but I still needed some convincing. And I look back now and I’m hiding my face because clearly it was a great idea, clearly it was going to work but I was just hard work to deal with, and it worked out in the end. So, sometimes you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror, and actually you are part of the problem and not the solution.
In the modern marketing world, we’re talking about so much more than brand agencies now , in a lot of digital scale ups, they’re the last expertise they’re looking at bringing in, and not the first because they let the product do the talking in the first instance. They start with supplementing expertise in search-performance marketing and advertising, or technology integration. They’re buying a certain expertise and making sure that that’s getting the job done. In a certain way, that’s why I set up Moreno as the collective rather than having an agency with resources on the book. Because, after fifteen years on a client’s side director, tired of paying for overheads when really all I wanted was a specific task done. It was a bit like eating in an all you can eat buffet and it doesn’t feel right when you just want to pop in for a snack.
When I set Moreno up two years ago, I wanted to make sure customers were paying for the value they were receiving and limit the amount if resources that were needed. So, for a brand new project I would bring in one of three excellent creative directives I’d worked with before, or another CMO to bounce ideas off and for a performance marketers challenge I’d bring in one who has learnt fast in an aggressive and hungry environment or a subscription expert but, I would make sure that these were resources that were required for the job in hand.
I agree, it’s about what gap the brand has and how you fill it. The most recent role I had was in digital transformation and I had to be mindful that not every answer to every question was digital. It’s about giving the real real and not a sales pitch. You can’t have a biased or self-serving view; you’ve actually got to solve the challenge that the client needs in the business problem mandate. Is it in your wheelhouse or not? It needs to be an unfettered advice so, if you’re the ad agency you’ve really got to think about the situation and if the better solution is in store, on pack, online, not just tv. That’s critical that you’re giving sound and sage advice. I think there’s another challenge going on in the industry, and it’s a disconnect with communication and understanding, there’s a lot of tools, resources, packages and platforms all plugged into things- so, you’ve got a sales force, hub spot and data run and all of these things going on but then if you ask why? Why are you doing it? You don’t get a good answer, and I think the agencies need to be part of that solution and be helping with informing and advising in the right way. Building on that then, I think the other big areas is stop keeping me dumb! Or, leave me just enough information to be dangerous. There’s a huge opportunity to be building capability and the work I do is helping upskill and reskill, especially on the client’s side so they have the information. So, there’s an element of teaching required from the agencies as well, so that there’s a knowledge uplift onto the client’s side.
Chris’ Three Pitch Tips
That’s a good shout there. Taking a step back, one of the biggest challenges is at that pitch process itself. It’s about making sure that as a client you’re not trying to get all of that value out on the pitch process, because it becomes a lose-lose situation. I think this is where the agency model breaks down, and I think that blame lies on both sides really. The client demands to be convinced of everything in a pitch process and all the cost is put on the agency, but in order to compete, the agency must compete. So, therefore they throw the kitchen sink at it, all their resources, they often over promise. I was chatting to someone in the agency world the other day and they talked about a desperation to win, that meant that you under cost or over promise, and the client buys the rhetoric, and everyone ends up disappointed. Now, that I think is a real challenge. And if you’re running a pitch for the first time or the hundredth time you have to remember three things.
1)keep the brief tight and build from there and use that to test relationship.
2)We’re all human. That means we don’t have the perfect answer to start off with, but we do have the capacity to collaborate in order to find the perfect answer. So, it’s a collaboration exercise not just asking someone to impress you.
3)It is all about chemistry. Spend time getting to know the people who will be working on the account, not the ones that are just good at delivering the sales pitch because those are the ones that will be making a difference at the end of the day.
Sam’s Six Point Plan
Those are the three great points and they should be part of the ongoing tracking and measuring process. I’m going to focus on the brief because that’s such a fundamental area that is critical to success going forward. It’s an interesting time for me to reflect as one of the tumbling times in my career was when I asked one of my agency partners “how’s my brief?” and they went ‘‘oh… you know… it’s good.’’ And I was like “well, just give me a score?”-the answer was four. And I said “no, no not a score out of five- out of ten” and they just said “yeah, Sam, it’s still a four.” Which was… my briefs suck, they’re awful, all this time I’ve been giving you crap basically… and you haven’t had the guts to tell me. And I’ve been asking that question for fifteen or so years and it’s amazing that if you ask advertising agencies across the world in parts of Germany, the UK, the US, everywhere I go, they all give you same answer. Most briefs get a four or five, that’s a huge opportunity to raise that bar. So, the challenge for clients out there, the brand managers and the marketers: are you prepared to ask your agency what score your brief gets? Equally, are you prepared for the answer? Because if you get a four or five, and most likely you will, then their effort is to raise the bar on the agencies side and help you get better. You need to be serving up briefs that are an eight or a nine perhaps and they add the magic dust on top. But if you’re serving a brief at a four the highest you’re going to get is a seven and it’s not going to work out. So, that for me is a big bug bearer.
If there’s a six-point plan that I put together for doing it well, for what goes into a great brief it’s:
1) Having the process and the disciplinary of grading; you could have a gold, silver, bronze, and maybe the gold and the silvers goes through and the bronzes get reworked, get a discussion, get a review.
2) Having an objective that’s smart. A smart, clear, distinct objective.
3) A clear audience description of who you’re going after.
4) Having an insight. It’s critical to have a clear insight in the brief, and if there isn’t one, crafting one and making sure there’s one there.
5) Having a timeline. Determining when you need something and not being vague and wishy washy about that.
6) You need to have a budget. Yes, that may sound obvious, but you’ll be surprised, but you probably won’t be surprised the industry horror stories of budgets that aren’t there, or budgets that were high in the beginning and fall away over time, which basically undermines trust, and it just means the vision, the mission, everything you had in mind doesn’t get delivered because the budget ultimately wasn’t there, or isn’t sufficient to do the task that’s needed.
I think that works well for large organisations and I can see how important that could be for places like The Guardian but, you’ve got to be careful not to over generalise because there will be smaller organisations where they just want one specific task done or one project. You need to make sure you’re able to deliver that, not necessarily over the course of improving all the time, that start off well as well. Also, there are places I’ve worked where there is a culture resistance to using agencies, even hostility in some cases, it’s seen as something you should be able to do yourself. So, I come back to the fact that sometimes you can’t base your business model on doing everything for your client or it being a long-term relationship, sometimes it is just getting the job done in place at that time. Some of that, I think is down to education on the client’s side in terms of how to use agencies and some of it is down to how agencies can best evolve to support their clients.
If we think about education first: you’re a manager or a search engine expert and you’ve reached a point in your career where you’re asked to supplement your work with an agency by your boss. They said “right, we’ve got to look at this: we need to increase how quickly we can do something, or increase our expertise.” You’d go “we need more support, we lack expertise, we lack confidence on how to do this right, or you’ve always used agencies”. So, that I think is interesting because we will mirror the behaviour that we’ve seen in the past; we repeat the work we’ve seen from our elders, so managers that we’ve copied or how the company has always done it. I think it’s important to always take a step back and ask the agency how to get the best out of them. Don’t bluff your way through it. I think a lot of agency client relationships are often on the wrong foot from that point.
That makes so much sense. Building on that, as you’re talking about it, I’d say the role of the strategist and the planners, the people that have the skills and knowledge to solve the business challenge; they’re a huge part of the process and they’re often hidden.. I’d say: unlock the hidden value of the relationship. Those folks that are doing those roles, they are good at facilitation, ideation session and a lot of the in-housing is highlighting the fact that clients don’t have this skill set and they don’t want to pay for stuff but if you actually showcase the value of strategists and planners and those strategic thinkers- that’s a huge unlock. Another positive move is focusing on working in agile ways. Again, from my experience agencies are actually really good at doing that, they tend to be faster, able to bring in different resources, quick at decision making and that’s something that tends to get slowed down on the client’s side. Things disappear in a black box for three weeks, four weeks, five weeks. There’s a big meeting that’s meant to happen but there’s no decision and no feedback. Understanding how the agencies are wired together and the clients that’s working more in that way.
Then, the other area that I would say is trust. We talked a lot about it in a prior episode, that’s a huge area of focus that the agencies and clients should work better at to build that and working in a way that decisions are more predictable, there’s accountability, and there’s two-way communication. Those are some of the areas that I would be working on in the client agency side, to raise the bar and actually get things moving in the right direction.
There was guy called Hugh Cameron at PHD, he’s now the chairman I believe, but he was the strategist that worked with us on The Guardian marketing strategy whilst I was there. An incredibly insightful guy and he drove an awful lot of what we did. If you can find those people- hang onto them, but again he worked in an agile way and he adopted the systems and we trusted him implicitly so, yeah a great guy and a great example I think within the agency.
So, that’s almost a summary in itself but, saying that I think we’ve pointed out the key strengths of an agency and how to get the best out of them but, the current model is in need of improvement. It’s too slow. Doesn’t allow a clear way to demonstrate value and potentially can hide the expertise which is why I prefer to try and pick and choose who I work with.
Three take outs of today’s session.
I’d say the first one is think beyond the pitch, which seems to be a bespoke element and a specific activity but you’ve got to think of the overall long term plan, long term vision, or just your strategic outcomes if it’s more a short term need but, what are you looking for and don’t just focus on the pitch and the sizzle there, make sure you’ve actually got a holistic point of view of what you need and why you need it. The second and a critical one is the fundamental power of the brief. It’s a craft, it’s an art and a science, something that should not be deprioritised, it’s actually one of the most fundamental areas of any relationship between the agency and client. We talked earlier about a six-point plan to give an awesome brief. The third part again, until the AI, the robots and the algorithms take over, this is a human process. It’s all about people and chemistry- and you should never forget that. Building those relationships take time, invest as much in the relationship as the requests and the asks. If you don’t build a strong, successful partnership approach versus an adversarial vendor approach, you’re doomed to failure.