Are You Filling Prescriptions or Curing What Ails?

Agencies Should Diagnose Client Problems

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Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
I received a call from the CEO of a mid-size manufacturing company in the Midwest the other day. He said he was looking to hire a new advertising agency, and we were recommended to him. My first question, naturally, was "Why are you leaving your agency?"

His response was disturbing, not because he's being unfair, but because it is something I hear regarding agencies over and over again. He said, "They are just not being proactive with ideas. They do what we ask them to do."

I know this CEO is expressing what many feel towards their shops. So, what's going on with agencies? Why are clients still firing their agencies for the same reasons that have existed for years? Why haven't we made improvements as an industry?

I believe there are several reasons:
  • Small-to-mid-size agencies win an account and quickly start executing, usually because by the time the agency is hired, the workload is backed up, and there is a sense of urgency. We often start in execution mode and never get ourselves off of the tactical treadmill. I know; my agency's been there.
  • Agency compensation has come under increasing pressure in recent years. That does not leave much room for extra staffing to think proactively.
  • Agencies get comfortable too easily. They work with clients to build the annual plan, which often reflects last years' plan, with some minor tweaks. That sets the agency-client relationship up for complacency, and a shift into reactive mode.
  • Some clients talk strategically, but behave tactically. Their agencies (wrongly) assume that is how the client wants the relationship to be.
And what agencies should do to improve:
  • Start the relationship strategically. Learn the client's business, inside and out. Attend focus groups. Talk with senior executives from the clients' various plants/offices. Discover how the client makes its products or delivers it services. Once your agency team "gets it," they will be trained and equipped to bring solutions, not just fill prescriptions.
  • Shake things up internally. Never get comfortable in a relationship. Constantly innovate and challenge the norm. It's been my experience that if you think something can be improved, your client does, too. Be the first to say it, and do something about it.
  • Hold quarterly planning sessions with your clients. It's an opportunity to grade each other (client and agency) and map out areas of improvement. Encourage honest feedback, so uncomfortable issues can be put on the table. You can't manage what you don't know.
  • Hold your account-management team responsible for "an idea of the month" for each client they work on. Sort through the ideas and present one to your client each month. You will never be criticized for being proactive with too many ideas -- even if there is no budget for them.
  • And if there is no budget, bring your client ideas that cost next to nothing (except sweat equity). That will go a long way.
I don't want to sound like the lack of proactivity is the fault of the ad agencies alone. It certainly isn't. But we're the ones being paid to bring new thinking. And if it's not happening, despite your best efforts, raise a warning flag, and make it happen. If you do, your client's CEO won't start searching for your replacement.
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