Marketers, Quit Blaming Your Agency -- It's Your Brief at Fault

Ex-Enfatico Architect Casey Jones Says Clients Can Save Not by Cutting Fees but by Briefing Better

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John Harrobin isn't a fan of the "blame the agency" school of advertising.

Recently, Mr. Harrobin, VP-marketing communications at Verizon Wireless, informed more than 100 execs responsible for marketing in his division that their job performance will now be evaluated on more than strategic thinking, leadership skills and contributions to the business success of a brand. It will also be judged on demonstrating excellence in providing Verizon's stable of agencies -- which include McGarryBowen, McCann Erickson, Hill Holliday, R/GA, Tribal DDB, Zenith, Global Hue and Moxie -- clearly defined briefs from which to execute marketing communications and campaigns.

In other words, Verizon, the country's second-biggest ad spender, wielding a budget that Ad Age DataCenter pegs at more than $3 billion a year, is putting its money where its marketing is .

Casey Jones
Casey Jones

Mr. Harrobin instituted the new rules after Verizon hired as a consultant Casey Jones, best known for his former stint as the global VP-marketing at Dell, and one of the architects of the controversial, and now-disbanded, WPP agency Enfatico.

After departing Dell in 2008, Mr. Jones set up a marketing consultancy called Jones & Bonevac. He later changed the name to BriefLogic.

These days he's spending a lot less time defending the notion of an agency built to serve a single client, and instead stirring debate over who's to blame for marketing issues -- an agency that didn't execute within the framework provided by the client, or a client that gave a shoddy framework. His motto is "garbage in, garbage out," shorthand for his theory that efficiency-obsessed companies can get what they want not by slashing an agency's fees, but by briefing the agency better.

"If you rated the industry on a scale from one to 10, with one being a horrifying piece of direction and 10 being optimal, I would say that companies are currently somewhere between a two or three," Mr. Jones said. "The norm is partial, incomplete and sometimes no brief at all. A phone call or a text message comes across to the agency, and the agency is trying to read the client's mind and they go off and start executing," he said. "Agencies go off and do stuff and then the marketer comes back and says 'That's not what I wanted.'"

One of the men credited with arguably the most legendary ad in history, Apple's "1984" spot that launched the Mac computer, agrees. "I just can't tell you how many days and weeks we've spent trying to improve the brief," said Steve Hayden, now vice chairman at Ogilvy. "Most of the time, clients work out the brief as they look at the creative, iterating along the way. If we could avoid that , we'd save a lot of time."

"The amount of revenue dependent on the quality of these documents is in the billions of dollars," said Mr. Jones. "It sounds hyperbolic -- until you've seen the quality of the briefs and realize that the work can't possibly drive ROI."

Some will likely say he isn't the most reliable authority on successful client-agency relationships, given his tumultuous tenure at Dell. But in addition to Verizon, top marketers such as Whirlpool, are taking his advice seriously. The Association of National Advertisers' School of Marketing even invited him to give presentations about the importance of quality documents.

"The largest pool of resources we can find to face these extraordinary economic times is not to be found in continuing to pressure our agency partners as though their output was a casual commodity," said Bruno Gralpois, former director of global agency management at Microsoft, and author of the new book Agency Mania. "It is to be found in more careful management of our responsibilities as clients."

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