A Few Steps to Help Your Challenger Agency Thrive

Think Big, Show Off Your Creatives and Share the Hate

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Milan Martin Milan Martin
I promise I won't waste anyone's time talking about how bad the market is. We all know it's a tough year ahead. The difference is that "tough" in no way must equate to "bad." Let's talk about how we as challenger agencies can do more than survive. Let's talk about how this economic crisis becomes the pivotal opportunity that will enable us to accelerate our growth, to get in front of the clients we want to work with and show a new agency model -- a better experience and simply better results. Forget survive. Let's talk thrive.

At our agency, there are several principles that we embrace -- that every challenger agency should embrace -- in order to turn this proverbial lemon in to sweet, sweet lemonade:

  1. Be better suited to create big ideas. Many of us are faced regularly with the challenge that some of the larger clients look to the larger agencies because of a perception that to get big ideas you need to go to a big agency. And, hey, the big agencies have done a good job building their own brands in this sense, so kudos to Mr. Burnett, Mr. Ogilvy and Mr. Bernbach. But last I checked the big boys don't have a monopoly on big ideas (Apple started in a garage in Cupertino, didn't it?). My opinion is simply that the challenger agency is better suited to create game-changing, business building ideas for our clients and more effectively execute them across the appropriate media. The big boys with 2,000 people in the New York office find it very difficult to focus on a client's core problem, solve it and execute across traditional, direct and interactive media (probably because the digital guys are in a different building and have a separate P&L). I know, I've been there; I spent the first 12 years of my career working for them.

    In our agency, the term "integrated" actually means that we surround the client's objective with smart people from each discipline. I'm sure you do the same. After all, it's your size that enables this approach and that it is very much aimed at gaining a better result for your client.

    And don't be afraid to let prospects know this when you're up-against the big boys; throw a few grenades in your pitch (in your most charming way). Clients need to know that the old "nobody ever got fired for hiring (insert big agency name here)" just doesn't apply anymore. In fact, if you look at the average CMO tenure these days, I'd argue that some have been!

  2. Don't hide your creative people. Again, the big boys like to send suits to take the brief and keep the creative teams locked up at the agency. It's simply an antiquated approach. If you're anything like Gyro, you hire creatives that are as strategically savvy and presentable as any account person. So here's the plain truth (coming from an account guy at heart): Clients love working directly with good creative people! Our approach is that client engagements are lead by a joint team of a senior account person and a creative director. Clients love it. It's a much more collaborative relationship when the agency team walks in the door and can start to riff ideas with the client on the spot. This is the kind of nimble approach clients these days are craving.

  3. Offer skin in the game. I'm sorry to say but when your client is bleeding red and you walk in with Forrester reports and case studies as to why they should not reduce spending, they're thinking about kicking you somewhere sensitive. It's actually a bit rude on our part. That said, if we can sit there eye to eye with our clients, understand the stress and risk they're personally facing, and counsel them to take a risk by spending on an initiative that may otherwise have been cut by sharing some of that risk? Now that's something different. Propose a break-even cost for you with bonus for success. Work with your media partners and suppliers to do the same. This, my friends, will increase the chances of them saying yes and will form relationships with long-lasting strength.

  4. Share the hatred. If your clients are invested in their brand, they have an arch enemy -- a nemesis maybe -- that is the focus of their toil. Every brand has one: Microsoft has Apple; American Express has Visa; The Eagles have the Giants (I'm a Philly boy at heart!). If we can show them sincerely that we want nothing else but to help them kick their competitor while he's down, a bond will form. More importantly, show that you have the process and the tools to help identify weaknesses in their competitor's defenses and put together aggressive programs that enable your clients to prosper from them.

    Relevant consumer insights are as important as ever but ensuring that you help your client "know thine enemy" takes the top spot in this market. Set a common goal. Helping them steal even the smallest share percentage will not only bring confidence to spend more but will weave you into the fabric and the heart of that client. This has been a huge element behind our growth here at Gyro.
All in all, it's business as usual for us challenger agencies. These are the things we do in good times, as well as bad, to show our clients that there is a better way. As we would tell our clients, from crisis comes innovation and change. Let's give them a taste of our sweet, refreshing lemonade.

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Milan Martin, exec VP-general manager, Gyro International, New York.

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