Thursday, October 30, 2008

Oh, Ad Agency, how we love thee

Isn’t there a joke about paranoia that goes something like “sure, I’m paranoid, but I have a million good reasons why.”

That's the spirit in which we sympathize with our agency friends. They’re paranoid - restlessly, eternally so - and who can blame them, when the foundation of their entire business is in constant upheaval, one plank after another is being removed from their shelter, every column inch written and ANA speech given on the subject is full of criticism… added on top of what was probably already a fraidy-cat line of work.
We’ve been reminded of this through a few recent conversations with agency-side collaborators. We’d be talking about some of the new partnerships we were bringing into our offering (media, digital, strategic planning, design etc). And the knee-jerk response would be summed up as ‘just remember, the more you have to offer, the more that’s a problem for us… we will see you as competition’.
Agency collaborators, hear ye:

We are not your competition. We do not want to compete with you. We do not want what is on your plate. We do not hanker after your clients.

We don’t even stack up as competition. You: corporation of thousands of employees, ranging across scores of disciplines, serving clients across multiple continents and multi-year contracts. Us: a small group of idea creators, looking only for projects, more than willing to sign non-competes.

We want to work with you to help make your product better, to help make your brand as brilliant as it can be. All we really want to do… wait a minute... maybe we should shut up and let Bob Dylan do the loving:

“I ain’t lookin to compete with you Beat or cheat or mistreat you. Simplify you, classify you, Deny, defy or crucify you. All I really want to do Is, baby, be friends with you.”


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Chin to the wind

Everywhere I go, everyone I meet, from clients to collaborators to next door neighbors, they’re all asking that question: “How are you guys doing?” And always with a slight gathering of flesh in the center of the forehead, meant to denote that this is not just casual small talk.

Then there’s my LinkedIn in box, suddenly alive with colleagues suddenly in transition, suddenly very interested in linking in.

A soft economy will do that to a social circle. The storm is all around us. What do we do?

Well, we’ve been through this once before, at our previous company Cream. It was 2001/2002, and the Nasdaq money that had funded agency investment in new business activity (our specialty) went from an Eden of riches to a dreary salt flat.

We responded at first by fleeing for the exits. Not liking what we saw at the fire escapes (namely, them good ol’ traditional ad agencies), we decided instead to knuckle down and do whatever it took to stay in our preferred game.

So, we hit the phones hard. But more importantly, we decided to innovate our own offering to meet the new realities: Agencies still had to pitch new business. They had even less senior people than before to run those pitches. And they didn’t have any excess funding to pay for external idea resources like ours.

Our answer was some ‘disruptive pricing’. We went from arguably the highest price point to absolutely the lowest. We cut our day rates from the ceiling to the carpet, in exchange for a success bonus should the partnering agency win the new business pitch. The bonus would more than offset the bet that we’d made in slashing our fees, and it could be paid out in installments to tap into the new revenue stream.

The forward leaning agencies knew a great deal when they saw it (and incidentally, are still profiting from some of the new business we helped secure, years after our bonus schedule expired) and the stuck-in-the-quicksand agencies - funny story this - said ‘hey, love that idea… paying next to nothing, great! Only issue we have is paying a bonus. Can we nix that part of it?’ Oh how we laughed.

Well, we survived… and we ended up thriving, too.

Which brings us to today, and our forward-thrusting, begging-to-be-punched chins.

This is the time for creative thinking on all parts of your business. It’s the time for innovation, not just in the name of survival, but also for new growth in new directions. On our own business, aside from taking care of the day-to-day, and loving our clients like never before, we are suddenly in a purple patch of innovation – new partnerships, new product offerings, new ways of engaging.

Call us Pollyannas. Call us reckless idiots sailing headlong into a Perfect Storm. We just happen to believe in all that chaos/opportunity stuff. How about you?

Image by tommorowstand

Monday, October 27, 2008

How to brief your agency

My friend Paul Isakson has done a huge favor for a mystery client colleague of his by soliciting the opinions on that thorny subject ‘How Should A Client Brief An Agency’.

There are lots of good comments on the post. Having come late to the conversation, I intended to make my thoughts succinct for fear of repeating what had already been said, but after I posted, I saw with horror and amusement that I’d rambled on for longer than anyone. Can anyone say, or even spell, logorrhea?

Anyway, here’s my comment, seeing as it is of blog-post length...

The most important thing to remember - marketers, strategic planners, and other creative thinkers - is that creativity is a misunderstood animal. (And I focus on creativity because I believe that that is the number one quality an advertising agency can provide to its client partners.)

Creativity is not a stage in a process. it is THE process. It doesn't happen when the layout pads get dusted off, it's a constant lateral discipline all the way through, from client chairman to agency producer. Many of the creative people I admire are not called creatives, they're called entrepreneurs - people such as Robert Stephensat Geek Squad. While I agree with all the above comments about not prescribing bridges and so on... it's another matter all together to actually pull this off in the real world. Finding the people who are not only trained lateral thinkers, but who also have a head and stomach for business, is not an easy task.

Something else creativity is not, as many suggest through their behavior and legacy business models, is something fragile to be protected at all costs. Rather, it is more nimble and powerful than any of its enemies (time, budget, committee etc). Perhaps creativity's only true kryptonite-enemy is fatigue. And that can be cured with fresh legs and copious amounts of caffeine.

So, my advice, based upon a history of successful and unsuccessful briefs, is this:

1. Make sure you're briefing the right people. Out-and-out specialists don't work in today's world. The people you need at the table have to be creative, strategic, and business focused. All three. All in each person. All engaged in your challenges.

2. Let it all hang out. Warts and all. Don't try to 'control' the bedlam that exists within every business. It will only conceal the shoals in the water. Again, creativity is a more nimble creature than anyone gives it credit. Lay the whole scene out, in all its complexity, and let creativity find the path.

3. One enemy of fresh, relevant solutions is the constant layering of interpretations from various steps in the development process. By the time a brief makes it to an agency, it might already have been through a number of iterations, each time being added on to by someone naturally inclined to prove their worth to the company. By all means, have opinions, but also allow your agency team to see the naked, original facts on the ground.

4. Lay out some very real goals. Not fantasy real ones. Realistic real ones. And don't be afraid to make them the same ones you, personally, are being measured on for your own performance. Assuming that the reason those bonus measures are there is that they're important company goals.

5. Dust off all your research. How much money have you spent on research over the last few years? Make a return on every cent by putting all that paper on the table, even if it's information that has since been discredited, or was authored by an unpopular figure, etc etc. Again, you don't know - no one knows - the connections that creativity will find. That's it's job.

6. Be real with your agency partners. Don't say you're looking for the next Nike or Xbox or Apple, when you know you can only gain internal consensus for something more conservative or traditional. In fact, I would say don't even have this conversation. Brilliant ideas aren't brilliant because they're brilliant, but because they solve tough problems. Solve the problem, let the solution speak for itself as a consensus maker.. and if other marketers start referring to your communications in THEIR agency briefs, pat yourself on the back and go ask for a raise.

image by jonas_k