Agencies and Clients Must Stop Talking Change, Start Making It

J&J's Brian Perkins Reflects on What He's Learned After a Run of Global Reviews

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Brian Perkins
Brian Perkins
I was catching up on some trade journals on the way home from one of those exhausting two-week trips covering Asia and Europe when I was struck by the consistency of one theme in article after article: how marketers and agencies deal with ever-more-demanding and discriminating consumers in this post-2.0, post-recession, post-procurement era, where consumers are consuming more content in more channels, marketers are being pressured to be more effective and efficient, and agencies are scrambling to offer a broader array of communication services from ever-demanding clients.

Somewhere over Greenland, I realized my company was wrestling with these very issues. We had recently completed a global media agency review and two pretty big creative reviews, and we were just winding down a global digital-agency roster exercise. So I asked myself whether we had learned anything in these reviews about where the crafts of advertising, media and communications planning are heading.

Are we, as a client, generally happy about the offerings of agencies? After all, we had just spoken with some of the best minds in our industry; surely the people at some of the best agencies in the world have this whole thing figured out. Right?

Well ... sort of.

I'll admit up front that I'm biased; I like agencies. A lot. So many great people at agencies have been invaluable partners over the years, which is why I'm surprised the informal conversations I'm having with leaders of the industry about what clients and agencies need now to navigate the current environment are not being addressed in more ad agency boardrooms.

It's time we stop talking about fundamental issues the advertising community needs to face and start making some changes.

Both clients and agencies are going to be on the hook soon to provide potential solutions in three critical areas: developing ideas and content that build brands; distribution of these ideas; and measurement of the results.

Idea and content generation
Having just visited many of the world's best digital agencies, I came away with a few observations. First, some of the work, people and technologies at these shops is breathtaking. The spirit, excitement and pride are palpable and contagious.

But -- and it's a big but -- unless something changes radically, digital agencies are not the holy grail for integrated messages or long-term brand-building. There are lots of great promotions, lots of great utilities, but building and nurturing a brand's essence? I don't see it nearly as much as I would have thought, or hoped.

The fact that so many of the brand engagements at digital shops are project-based is a partial explanation. I was surprised at how few AOR relationships digital agencies have with clients. Maybe I shouldn't have been, as many J&J brands make project-based digital assignments. But what does that tell us? Maybe that good old above-the-line agencies still offer better insight and brand stewardship. Or maybe digital shops simply haven't evolved to where they deliver broader, higher-level strategic services. Still, I wish more above-the-line agencies could translate their ideas in more culturally relevant ways that prove they have the digital pulse of today's consumers. Like, well, the digital agencies do.

The obvious question: Why are we still debating the importance of integrated brand messaging? We're beyond that. Digital and traditional agencies need to come together to combine and leverage the depth and breadth of their talent and their technology. We should be seeing unification of resources.

Yes, traditional agencies have developed digital capabilities, but most still have sister companies that really do digital. No one disputes the role digital will play in everything we do, but it sure would be nice if clients could benefit from integrated ideas though unified agencies.

I've come to subscribe to Chuck Porter's theory on this subject. I'll never forget his comment on a panel in Cannes; the question was how agencies and holding companies approach the development of integrated ideas and how they can be expressed in various media. After a few answers, which were variations on getting siloed agencies within a holding company to try and work together, Chuck breezily said something along the lines of, "We just get a bunch of bright people together around the same table, and good things happen."

That may explain why companies like Crispin, Porter & Bogusky; Goodby, Silverstein; and the Martin Agency win digital agency of the year awards. They just bring the right talent together under one roof. I wish more of the global networks would come to grips with this. At some point, the whole of a holding company will be greater than the sum of its parts. Why not now?

I hate to get started on this, but I've come this far, I might as well get it off my chest: When media and communications planning have become more important than ever -- more creative and more innovative -- why are our media agencies further (physically and philosophically) from the people who create advertising?

Some say holding companies introduced this separation because it was more profitable. However, I've also been told by some of those who actually created the schism that clients wanted it that way. No matter what the rationale was for originally separating these two critical functions, I'm guessing there are more than a few clients who would like to see creatives working side-by-side under the same roof with media professionals.

As opposed to the old days, when media people were called in during the last five minutes of the meeting, creatives at traditional and digital agencies today actually go out and hire or consult with media people to help them develop programs. We need to call a time out on this. It's one of the reasons I wish Nick Brien the best as CEO of McCann Worldgroup. If anyone can pull this off on a global basis, Nick just might be the person.

Whether you agree or not with the wisdom of a consolidated, full-service agency, at some point clients will lose their tolerance for paying the overhead of multiple agencies. And attempts at providing financial incentives to agencies to encourage media-neutral thinking get a little more complex when these functions continue to be separated.

A final thought on consolidated offerings: In this economic recovery, agencies have procurement staring them in the face. Procurement has an important role to play for clients. Have there been missteps as procurement entered the agency world? Yes. Have they improved? Yes. Are they going away? No. If there is a better way of developing ideas and distributing them, and it could cost clients less, marketers will be motivated to pursue those solutions.

Boy, do we have a lot of data. Every one of the digital agencies I visited had a menu of offerings on analytics, some their own, some off-the-shelf and some from well-known market-research suppliers. And some of it was very good. But the industry has more data than true insight. We don't need numbers, we need the intelligence to guide our investment opportunities.

A simple plea to the market-research community: help us develop the digital equivalent of day-after-recall testing. Something predictive. While I'm not suggesting we try to apply old advertising standards to digital communication, there will be a breakthrough in digital spending if marketers have the ability to diagnostically test digital concepts before they are built and executed in the marketplace.

I'd like to be able to tell you that, as I landed at Newark, the answers to all these issues became clear. But it just isn't that easy. In fact, the message here is that, while talking about the need for change in agency offerings is something so many of you do, the inertia of the status quo is remarkable.

The consumer has moved on. For those of us in the health-care field, the doctor and the patient have also moved on. When will our agencies help us catch up?

Brian Perkins is corporate VP at Johnson & Johnson.
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