It's Time for Agencies to Grow Up

By The Cog Blog Archives
Cover image for  article: It's Time for Agencies to Grow Up

Ever since early man emerged from his cave, invented fire and wondered aloud how he was going to spread the word of his wondrous invention to others, those responsible for doing the word-spreading have considered themselves hard done-by.

Agencies feel advertisers underpay them. They feel that their true worth is under-valued. They feel misunderstood, under-appreciated. They always have, and they probably always will.

Weirdly though, they rarely feel any of these things so strongly as not to pitch (although credit to Red Bee for doing just that). It's unusual to read of an agency resigning business.

Complaining about clients was always part of the zeitgeist, along with having fun spending time with like-minded souls in a creative, relaxed atmosphere. Yes, the hours were long, but (back then) so were the lunches.

But that was then, and this is now. Now, advertising is not liked, and largely not enjoyed. It's synonymous with being chased around the web, being unable to read an online article because of all the interruptions, all the black holes.

The long hours are still there though; the macho behavior that leads some mid-level exec to keep some impressionable junior hanging around just in case he (the mid-level exec, and shamefully usually a he) might want something photocopied.

There is still a sense that bad behavior can be tolerated, as this is an industry that everyone wants to get into. So, sit there, do as you're told and cancel your plans. Otherwise you'll just be replaced with the next cab in the rank.

But these days it's not quite like that. Back in the days of the old university runs, agencies were able to pick from the brightest and the best creative minds. Now that's not so true.

In today's ad land the hours are still crazy, it's not so much fun, the industry is less socially admired, and agencies are still underpaid.

And yet somehow, according to the Chairman of D&AD this is all the clients' fault.

I disagree. This is very largely our own fault. (I say 100%, others whose opinions I value put it at 80%.) We manage the agencies, we put in place the structures and the pay grades, we set the culture, we establish the standards and the rules.

If agencies were truly delivering to their clients' business needs -- if they were recognized as valuable business partners -- then surely the longer they worked the more they should get paid?

The truth is that for decades agencies have failed to get their hard work recognized by Boards; they are still seen as the guys who do the pink fluffy bit / beat up the media owners to get us a great deal (delete where appropriate).

How many CEOs truly know anything about their agencies? They may know Sir Martin Sorrell, but truly, how many know anything about the agencies they hire?

Now ask the same question of their appointed management consultancy. Or accountants. Or lawyers.

We might start by asking ourselves why might that be? Could it be because we have failed to make the case to the right people that what we do is of real, demonstrable value to the business? We don't do enough to quantify it. We haven't sold it in.

That's not to say we don't have the data -- the Binet and Field work aside there is a mass of evidence stretching back to my old mentor Simon Broadbent and beyond.

But which CEOs have ever seen that work -- aside from a one-off "thought you might be interested in this" presentation?

We know that advertising needs frequency to work. So why aren't we banging the drum over and over?

Why do we focus on winning what we are pretty sure will be loss-making accounts? Does our position in the new business league table trump everything else? Do we really believe that any client looks at those tables and says, "Get me the biggest new business winner of the year, they must be doing something right"?

Why isn't our trade press full of business leaders praising the role that advertising has played in their success? Stories that make the case for great advertising. Stories told by CFOs and CEOs.

We need to do this again and again. Not "just" when the effectiveness awards are handed out, but week in, week out.

We should celebrate the role that we can and do play in building business. We should be at the universities and the business schools promoting advertising in this way -- not as a fun way to spend your time but to build your client's business using creativity.

We should behave like responsible employers, investing in our staff, paying them properly, mentoring them, helping them find the right work-life balance. We should say no to rapacious clients wanting the earth for nothing.

We should resign such business and go public as to why. Yes, some do this, but they're few and far between.

We should publicly praise great clients. We should build a sense that great clients contribute to and get great advertising that builds businesses, whilst bad clients just waste money.

We should, to be frank, take responsibility and grow up.

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