How Your Ad Agency Can Avoid an Epic Fail

Sometimes There Are Easier (and Cheaper) Ways to Learn Lessons

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Curt Hanke
Curt Hanke
Let me be blunt: Every agency fails, at some point or another. In fact, every agency fails at many points in time. After all, we are in the business of "new and next" -- so to presume that every engagement, initiative and project is going to be a proverbial home run for each and every client is a fallacy of the purest type.

But let's parse this one step further, because failure doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. As an old client of ours is famous for saying, "When we're venturing into new platforms and testing our way into the unknown, I expect to fail from time to time. I only mind failure when we don't really learn something we can leverage toward 'what's next.'" Let's call this "good failure," if you will, for the purposes of this discussion.

And so, what about the rest of our failures? (After all, we can't blame everything on exploration and innovation, can we?) You know what I'm talking about -- the "seriously, did we really just spend all of that time and money in a painful and inefficient process and see no benefits from our investment or learn anything at all" type of failure. (In a word: Ugh.) The kind of failure that could have been avoided. That was probably predicted. And that certainly frustrated everyone along the way. You guessed it. We'll call this one "bad failure."

While every instance of "bad failure" has its own heartbreaking tale to be told, I believe that there are three root causes at play -- three essential breakdowns where we didn't properly execute the fundamentals as agency-client partners. Meaning that we weren't exploring bold new frontiers for brand building together, but rather, setting the table for an inevitable "epic fail," as the kids are calling it these days.

And so. Back to basics. Here are three best practices to help agencies and clients alike avoid "bad failure," and pave the way for inspiration and innovation.

The Right Information
It is incumbent on the agency to ask the right questions. To conduct a comprehensive due diligence. To understand the myriad of dynamics at play. To "define the right box." This means rolling up our sleeves to make sure that before any strategic recommendations are made, before any marching orders are given within our hallowed halls, that we have been truly exhaustive in our efforts to define the playing field.

Likewise, it is incumbent on the client to provide the right information. Comprehensive information. Detailed, meaty information, chock full of everything that they know -- and explicit definition of what they assume they know (or don't know altogether). With full disclosure, and complete access to everything the agency needs to define the assignment. And -- if required -- access to senior management within the organization (more on this in a second).

In a Word: Focus
In the client-agency dynamic, there must be a leader. This can be the agency, providing true strategic value by defining a vision for the future and helping both parties manage toward it. Or it can be the client, putting a stake in the ground and asking its agency to help them get there. But it can't be neither. And it certainly can't be both.

Now let me be clear. This isn't to say that we can't be collaborative in the planning, creation and management of brand communications. But rather, there must be a leader, with a vision, and the responsibility and authority to manage against this vision. With apologies to linguists, there must be a "decider." This can be an empowered brand manager, or a "hands in the clay" CMO or even CEO. But there must be someone willing to define a fundamental direction (from the overall campaign to each individual project), and helping keep all parties moving -- consistently -- in this direction.

You can't have an effective relationship of any type without trust. Period. If we are to avoid "bad failure," we must have a relationship that is honest and open. That is predicated on a sense of true teamwork -- or the best version of that which can be cultivated in a modern world where expectations run wild and patience for results is short.

This trust must run from the top to the bottom of each partner in the relationship. And yes, at times, this means that the agency will need access to senior management. While we certainly appreciate and value our "day to day" teams (and all of their input, insights and collaboration), there is often a power and clarity of an executive's vision that is profoundly valuable for an agency to hear first hand.

Now, I can certainly dress this topic up and make it more complicated. I could use bigger words, reference "Harvard Business Review" a couple of times, and even have a designer knock out a pretty chart or two. But the reality is, as I cast an eye over all of the "bad failures" in my career -- when hindsight and honesty require that both agency and client partners alike acknowledge that we were simply throwing good hope against bad -- they pretty much all come down to a failure in one of these three key areas.

Think about your own recent "bad failures." The positioning assignment where you had hardly a hint of an insight to build on. The digital initiative where the metrics changed three times during development. Or the brand campaign where a six-person team (without any respect or trust) cobbled together a "FrankenAd" that was, quite simply, awful.

Like so much of what we do, it doesn't have to be that complicated -- but execution is absolutely everything. And so, let us resolve to ask the right questions, work hard to create and maintain a consistent compass bearing, and build the kind of relationships that lead to success or, at minimum, the kind of "good failure" that is simply a cost of entry for our chosen profession.

Curt Hanke is the co-founder and account director of Shine, a 32-person advertising and interactive agency headquartered in Madison, WI, serving clients such as Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Carver Yachts, Wisconsin Cheese, Kaplan Inc., and Winston Fly Rods.
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