Agencies no longer have the capabilities to perform the strategic planning function that they once did. Account management does not have the support services it had in the past. Its role is much more focused on managing the creative product, from creative strategy to execution. Research has become account planning, a support function to the creative product. And the client is going to consultants such as McKinsey & Co. for high-level business strategy counseling.
These are market realities. They are neither good nor bad. They just are. No business operates in the same competitive and economic environment as it did 40 years ago. There's nothing more destructive than yearning for a time that will never return. However, the agency business can win back a higher level of credibility if it approaches the problem as if it were a business problem of one of their clients.
First, what's the function of an ad agency today? There is a need for a much better focus, and a focus that recognizes what agencies are good at now, and not what they may have been good at in the past. Focusing on getting better and better at the business of understanding customers and communicating with them is a path to winning greater client respect. We need less of the predictable "big idea" palaver and a greater emphasis on crafts and skills. To be taken seriously, get serious.
Second, we need to dig down into client attitudes to understand how they feel about their agencies. A lot of client problems with agencies are cultural. The narcissism of the creative side of the agency business is real and, in my experience, offensive to clients. Clients, rightly or wrongly, believe many of their agency teams are more interested in peer-group accolades than building the client's business. I think this is largely unfair. But I've also been embarrassed too many times by "creative people behaving badly." So this is a client perception problem the industry could work on.
It is also not just my perception that a lot of today's creativity is self-indulgent, tasteless and heavy with sophomoric attempts at humor. I know the client bought it. But I've seen clients bamboozled into buying advertising they later regret, with disastrous results for the agency. The adults need to get back in control. [Havas President-Chief Operating Officer] Bob Schmetterer is on the money when he says that the industry is often viewed as "too hubristic, self-indulgent and irrelevant." These are self-inflicted wounds.
But let's not solve problems clients don't have. The proposed research study from the Four A's to show how clients that continue to advertise in recessions do better in the long run is not relevant to clients' needs. They already know this is true. But during a recession they are trying to save money wherever they can, even if it is not in their long-term interests. This study is actually trying to solve the agencies' problem of depressed billings, and that won't work. It is precisely what we warn clients to avoid: the assumption that your problem and your customer's problem are the same.
Similarly, we waste our time when we try to sell clients on the value of advertising, as the Four A's is proposing. Clients advertise because they must. The agency business needs to understand its own customers and address their real concerns-more marketing as it were, and less of the "telling them and selling them."
Mr. Brookbanks spent 24 years with Young & Rubicam in Europe and the U.S. before starting his own company specializing in strategies for the mid-sized company.
To check `reality,' focus on consumer
I agree with Rance Crain's point in "No mystery if the ad flops; `reality check' was missing" (Viewpoint, AA, April 7). I just wish he had taken it a little farther than he did. I agree agencies are often out of touch with the consumers to whom they're advertising. I even started an agency focused on a particular consumer group rather than a product/service category. I feel our clients are the experts on their product and their industry. So we focus on being the experts on the consumers-because our clients are too deep in their own product to understand a consumer's point of view. We specialize in advertising to "urban pioneers," a consumer group we think is extremely important and not yet directly targeted.
Andrew van Hook
Garfield book gets a reader's praise
Ad Age's Bob Garfield has written the book that I intended to write (I've been in the planning phase for the last ten years)-with almost the same genius and humor my book would have had. For those of us that take ourselves too seriously at times (and most of us do occasionally ... or not so occasionally), read Bob's "And Now a Few Words from Me." While perhaps not a must read in collegiate literary circles, it should be suggested reading for anyone in our business.
Matthew G. Feinberg
National Broadcast Department
* In "Bigger role for bottles in Snapple's marketing efforts" (April 14, P. 6), it was incorrectly stated that Snapple volume fell 12.3% in 2002, according to Beverage Digest. Overall Snapple brand volume rose 1.1% last year, Beverage Digest said; Snapple juice volume fell 12.3% last year while tea volume rose 8.5%.
* In "Reporter's notebook" (April 14, P. 45), DDB Worldwide Chairman Keith Reinhard was incorrectly identified as a recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the American Association of Advertising Agencies conference in New Orleans. Mr. Reinhard presented the award to honorees Phil Dusenberry of BBDO Worldwide and Hal Riney of Publicis & Hal Riney.