I have helped more marketing services firms than I can recall achieve success they hadn’t previously considered possible, but if I were honest it hasn’t been rocket science.  In fact the principles I have applied and the initiatives I have introduced have mostly been pretty straightforward.  Often, the biggest challenge has been changing the mindset of the agency’s decision-makers and the key to my success, apart from my tenacity, I believe has been in avoiding the short-term opportunist approach that agencies seem increasingly to be adopting and creating instead a strategy for the agency that takes a broader perspective, like those they should be providing for their clients.  All this is a bit of a condemnation when you consider, if nothing else, a marketing services business should be the fountain of new thinking.

Everyone wants to live forever.  Especially advertising agencies and businesses of every kind these days are discovering the answer to the perennial question “If it ain’t broke’ why fix it?” is “Because, in this fast-paced, ever-changing game of musical chairs, what works today is almost certainly not going to work tomorrow and you don’t want to be still looking for the answer next time the music stops”. To sustain their growth a business needs agencies that are ahead of the game.  I was therefore interested to see an article by Reid Carr from the agency Red Door in iMedia Connection last week that explored some of the challenges and dilemmas facing an agency these days when they consider their proposition.

Marketing is such a big subject, touching, as it does, every area, at every level of a business, that no agency could hope to cover all the disciplines required of a modern marketing strategy.  My advice to any agency is “get over it!”. Reid highlights the proliferation of gimmicks being adopted by agencies in their quest for the mother load and it’s clear that too many have jumped on the integrated marketing bandwagon despite the fact that their lack of skills means they have no hope of delivering an integrated strategy. Similarly, loads of design agencies have decided to call themselves “brand consultancies” when they have no clue what a brand is nor the wit to create one.  The missing ingredient in both cases is strategic capability.

There are two kinds of marketing services business – those that are implementers and others that are strategy-led and there’s no doubt that agencies that have made strategy their thing have a greater chance of sustaining relationships and business. However, the bandwagon-jumpers are out in force here too, with many agencies choosing to promote themselves as “marketing strategists” when at best they are only delivering communications strategies – different thing entirely.  In his book Space Race Jim Taylor  was pointing out, way back in 2006, that advertising agencies rarely understood marketing strategy and not a lot has changed.  He demonstrated that marketing services agencies, despite being already in the district, had failed to own the strategy real estate, when clients started to adopt a more thought-through approach and the business consultancies had moved in, making it their own and leaving traditional marketing services firms to scramble around for profit in the “implementation” sector.  These days, my competitors are often PWC, KPMG, Boston and the like.  If I come up against a marketing services agency their proposals are likely to be weak and often naive.

The problem with being an implementer is that its commoditised. Once you get past the original concept the mechanics of a campaign are pretty … well… mechanical. However, there’s hope, because a smart client (and these are the ones you want) can tell the difference between an agency that is going to deliver their component of a strategy smoothly and seamlessly and one that’s going to muddle-through, make mistakes and waste your time and money as has often been the case in the past.  They will also pay for it.  I worked with a German agency who made execution an art form. They were expensive, very, very profitable and growing at an eye-watering pace until they were acquired by WPP who promptly killed the golden goose.  But that’s another story.  My point is that implementation isn’t just a poor-mans game, so you don’t have to pretend to be a strategist, but you do have to make your offer special and that’s the challenge. There’s no place for mediocrity in any sector of any market these days, so unless you are at least aiming to be best-in-class you are voting for the scramble for the Dutch auction.

A lot of my work is with marketing services firms who are happy to play the implementer, but know that they have to have a robust strategy to operate in, so they call me in to partner with them on pitches. Clients who issue half thought-out briefs get a total solution that they weren’t expecting with a great concept based on a sound marketing strategy that resolves the real issues.

I’ve been working with a creative agency on a typically narrow pitch brief that effectively asked them to devise an advertising campaign that would wallpaper-over the client’s business failures. The client believed (as so many do) that making, what was effectively an empty promise, was the solution. Undoubtedly they would gain some short-term benefit from a campaign that persuaded a few prospects to take a second look at the brand, but that wouldn’t last and they’d be back to square one as soon as everyone realised that nothing has changed. What’s more, we all know that crying “wolf” represents the start of a downward spiral that would prove difficult and maybe impossible for them to pull out of.

I persuaded the agency to offer their campaign to the client only on the proviso that the client fixed the real issues. Sure, its a bold step and maybe somewhat unusual for an agency to say to a client who loves their idea (and we knew they would because its awesome!) that they can’t have it unless… but it makes a few valuable statements about the agency, the contribution they could make to the future of the business and the kind of relationship that’s needed to really make a difference.  Not to mention adding perceived value to the creative solution.  The bottom line is that the client buys the agency because they love the idea and the proposition it contains is valid because I’ll work with the client to fix their internal issues.

Reid suggests that clients have learned the error of short-termism and, these days, are increasingly looking for long-term relationships with marketing services partners. I tend to agree, but if this is so and you are going to fit the bill, you’ll need the balls to be able to tell a client that what he is asking you to do isn’t going to produce the results he is looking for. After all, he’s, at best, a generalist, you are supposed to be the expert. That’s what he’s thinking of paying you for, so show him you can do the job! A client worth having will always respect you for it and, as I put to my agency clients, “do you really want to work with a client that doesn’t respect you and is going to force you to do things that you know are wrong?”

When Saatchi & Saatchi (The original one) were rocking and rolling their way to superstardom, we used to turn down invitations to pitch on a daily basis.  In those days a weak Marketing Director or a company under pressure could take the heat off themselves by announcing that we’d been appointed to do their advertising. We recognised there was no merit for us in working with people who just wanted us to put our name to the same old solutions that had got them into trouble in the first place and every pitch we turned down added to our value.  It also meant that the work we were doing was pretty-well always ground-breaking, news-worthy and effective and that made us even more desirable.  We had the best clients and the best people.

Whether you choose to set out your stall as a strategist or an implementer you still need to distinguish yourself of course and as Reid again points out this is largely a matter of expressing your philosophy in a unique and distinctive way.  For a marketing services firm with all that pent-up creativity this shouldn’t be a problem, but I’ve seen a few horrors in my time.  If the best you can do falls into that category, I think the writing is probably on the wall and you should pack up and get a window-cleaning job. If you can’t do it for yourself then you aren’t going to manage it for your clients, but again this goes back to having a sound strategic base.

Growing an advertising agency is the same as growing any business.  It requires commitment and integrity and a load of hard work, but, as those of us who have done it know, there’s a particular satisfaction in growing a business by growing businesses for others.

Phil Darby
February 16, 2014

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