Return on advertising investment has always been a priority for marketers, but in the recession it flew to the top of the list. As chief marketing officers fought to justify spending within their organizations -- often via spirited discussions with procurement departments about where the dollars are going -- the pressure wasn't just on marketers to prove ROI and trim costs: It was increasingly on agencies as well.
That's where one unique SWAT team -- married couple Charles Day and Chris Tardio -- come in. While any number of consultants in adland are available to help agencies recruit talent, participate in agency reviews or negotiate compensation with clients, Mr. Day and Ms. Tardio are carving out a new specialty with their consultancy, Lookinglass. The duo spent years on the agency side and are now convincing shops from McCann Erickson to CP&B to throw open their accounting books and target places they can eliminate waste and enhance revenue.
Often the bull's-eye is something decidedly unsexy: information-sharing systems. According to Lookinglass, the creative nature of the advertising business has made it traditionally more averse to embracing the types of systems and processes that exist in most companies across corporate America -- and that 's costing agencies enormous amounts of time and money.
Why are shops listening? "They've worked inside agencies, they left agencies, they started their own business and sold that business -- so that is relatively unique," said David Rolfe, head of production at MDC Partners' CP&B in Boulder.
Ms. Tardio began her career as a producer of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and VP-publicity and promotions for Harpo Productions just as Oprah was evolving from a local media personality to the queen of talk. Eager to stay in a TV-related business, she took on a post at DDB, Chicago, as head of broadcast production. Mr. Day, meanwhile, started his ad career at Ogilvy, New York, as an assistant media planner when the late David Ogilvy was still walking the halls. He moved to Chicago in the '80s and worked in buying, account management and copywriting roles before becoming a producer at DDB, Chicago.
In a twist of fate, the pair landed at the same agency, and even lived in the same building without knowing one another. They met while working together on the McDonald's account at DDB. Driving back and forth to the fast feeder's Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters, they found they had a mutual love of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Bruce Hornsby and a desire to build a company of their own.
The way Ms. Tardio tells it, they looked at each other one day and said: "If we go on doing this, we'll run the risk of being cogs in a huge machine when we can actually create something. … So we sat down to figure out how we can create something that draws upon all of our experiences."
They built their own firm twice: first a film-editing boutique called Whitehouse, which they launched, expanded and then in 2005 sold their interest in it; they launched their current venture, Lookinglass, the summer of 2008 in the thick of the economic downturn.
When they engage with clients, Mr. Day and Ms. Tardio typically devote three to six months to working with a single office of an agency, and sometimes longer if it's several offices. A sweet spot for the consultancy is helping companies who are having a hard time growing because they have systems that are meant for a smaller organization.
For example, one problem plaguing agencies across the business, they say, is having no streamlined way to locate internally the very ads their creatives toil over for weeks to churn out.
"We sat in our office once as the client said to [an agency], essentially, 'what have you done for me lately?'" recalled Ms. Tardio. "And there was no list itemized anywhere … there was no instant way for the person to refresh the clients' mind. Having a powerful system can really help."
According to her, there's a notion that creative people aren't well suited for corporate processes. But the result of that mentality can be scary in terms of how much time can be wasted within agencies. "Some organizations are using Google or YouTube to find out what they are working on because it's easier than their own organization's structure, which is crazy," said Ms. Tardio. "So finding the high-resolution master of a spot might take four days, and 10 people."
Still, the biggest challenge is convincing an agency to spend money on creating organizational systems over the various other investments they're required to make, such as attracting talent. Lookinglass' argument to them is that it's better to address issues sooner than later, and the ROI could be significant.
"If you've got a company that 's spending millions of dollars a year to find the stuff they've made, it's probably going to cost them between $2 and $5 million to solve the problem initially, but the annual savings they are generating thereafter is five, six or seven times that ," said Ms. Tardio.
In the fall of 2009 Lookinglass was called in to meet with a number of senior managers at Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, New York. "McCann has been going through a lot of transformation," said Jonathan Shipman, head of production at McCann. "There's a need today for focusing on your people -- who belongs together, and how you integrate [different departments]. At that point we were eight floors for the agency, and that was reflective of how we operated as an agency, too. It's hard because of the building we're in for how we communicate as a company. We talked to a couple of different consulting companies … and they just really impressed me."
Lookinglass homed in on an existing intranet system that was HR-centric and poorly designed. Mr. Shipman refers to the tool as a "deserted town" that nobody used. Mr. Day and Ms. Tardio came up with the idea to rebrand the tool "Spill" and -- with some help of promotional iPad giveaways -- encourage contributions from staff about latest breaking campaigns for clients, staff parties and other news pertaining to McCann.
"It suddenly went from no use to a very active tool that we use to find out about what's going on -- whether there's going to be a party downstairs or we won a new piece of business," said Mr. Shipman. "From that point on, it sparked a change in the culture of more collaboration."
"We realized then there was an opportunity to deal with larger creative companies," said Mr. Day. "That led rapidly to other companies calling, and talking to them about other things. We've been able to work with different sizes of agencies, sometimes up to the holding company level, sometimes at the local-office level -- it just depends on the issues that are facing them."
Lookinglass is now in the midst of wrapping up a project with MDC Partners' CP&B that entails the creation of a post-production arm within the agency.
"They spend a good deal of time listening so their model is right," said CP&B's Mr. Rolfe. "I honestly don't know of anyone on the outside who I've spent as much time with, who understands CP&B as much as Charles."
"We've really specialized in how to extract the value of creativity of organizations," said Ms. Tardio. "It's not at all about theory. It's very, very practical. We are about rolling up our sleeves and making change happen."