Could Advertisers' Quest for Speed Be Compromising Quality?

Super-Quick Service Just a Gimmick, Many Agency Execs Say

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Nimble. Always on. Real-time.

Agencies are increasingly employing these descriptors to convince clients that they can work faster than ever. The motivation is understandable. For years now the ad business, particularly agencies not branded "digital," has received a bad rap for being sluggish and not moving at the pace of technological change. Marketers, meanwhile, are feeling the pressure to innovate faster.

Lerer Ventures' Eric Hippeau -- who, as a backer of dozens of successful digital startups including BuzzFeed, knows a thing or two about innovating at breakneck speed -- gave attendees of this month's Ad Age Digital Conference some sobering advice: "Marketers are being outpaced by consumers. That gap has to close. We must pick up the pace."

OK. But how fast? And at what cost? There are troubling signs that some in adland are overcompensating for their prior reputation.

Take the social-media shop a digital strategist in Chicago began plotting last year that will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Then there's Deutsch's Inventionist arm, which markets itself as "affordable enough for anyone to try us" and "fast enough to impact your business today." Projects start at just $10,000 with further discounts for revenue shares, and work can be accomplished in a "five-day sprint." And what feels like the ultimate acceleration down the highway to the danger zone: the agency that branded itself the World's Fastest Agency, set up entirely on Twitter and turning around briefs in a matter of hours for $999.

Some marketers are getting the wrong idea.

"What we are seeing is brands coming to agencies saying they need something done in two months, and this could be anywhere from a small campaign to a full portal redesign," said Charles Bae, chief creative officer at digital agency Rokkan. "That's an extremely unrealistic ask for any company. Yet there are certain agencies coming out and saying they can do things faster and cheaper than others. It's a gimmick, and it's sending the wrong message out to clients about how things work."

It may be a gimmick, but clients are biting. Within six hours of WFA's launch, the largest coupon site in the U.S., RetailMeNot, sent through a 140-character Twitter brief.

"A good marketing idea is worth its weight in gold, and I've paid a lot more in my day for less-than-worthy ideas from other ad agencies," said Cotter Cunningham, CEO of RetailMeNot, in a statement. "We like the return on our small investment in the World's Fastest Agency on what turned out to be fun, creative thinking," he said.

New-business pitches are getting faster, too.

"These days it's 90 days from the first meetings to the finals," said Saatchi & Saatchi Exec VP-Chief Strategy Officer Claudine Cheever. While it's nice to not have a pitch drag out and take up valuable resources, a super-fast process leaves less time to build relationships. "People try to sneak extra meetings in, or another tissue session or a phone call, to increase the contact points to build a rapport and try to learn more about each other."

Agency executives say that in this frantic environment, there needs to be an open dialogue between clients and agencies about the issue of time pressure to help bridge the gap of expectations. A good start would be with those CMOs who understand that for some projects, more leads to better.

Mondelez International Senior VP-Marketing Strategy and Communications Dana Anderson says being on the agency side earlier in her career afforded her the knowledge that more planning can lead to quality. "I know how much time and work is needed to create great ideas."

Pepsi represents another example; recently the president of the global beverages group, Brad Jakeman, announced the formation of an agency structure within Omnicom dubbed Galaxy, which he acknowledged would work best for timelines of up to 18 months per creative project.

There's evidence that time can lead to quality. When the Jay-Z Bing work by Droga5 swept the awards shows a couple years ago, the agency credited the client for allowing adequate time to execute such a complex campaign.

"There's no question the industry needs to play catch-up with other industries. And everyone has to work smarter, better and faster," said the shop's founder, David Droga. "But if you just build an industry around being reactive, that's not valuable. You need balance, you also need to be thoughtful."

Every marketer these days is trying to replicate 360i's winning Super Bowl tweet for Oreo, but industry insiders would be hard-pressed to find a successful copycat (or a real-world consumer who recalls the Oreo tweet).

One big benefit to agencies, though? The age-old testing regimen for ad campaigns, though unlikely to ever totally disappear, is becoming less important.

"In some ways it's really good to have less time because it prevents everyone from overthinking," said Ms. Cheever. "We can do that as much as our clients, and get in a vacuum about ideas. Everyone has to go a little bit more with their gut."

But as a strategist, she worries that marketers won't spend as many dollars on planning in the future. Said Ms. Cheever: "We find those surprises and insights when we're in the field. One of my fears is losing that part of the thought process. ... Can we do it in less time? Yes. Can we do it instantly? No."

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