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Agency professionalism, strategic planning and cost efficiency beat leading-edge creativity and integrated communication capabilities when marketers select a shop, according to a study conducted by the North American Advertising Agency Network.

A survey of 180 clients showed they're more interested in effective agency administration that "carries out orders smoothly and efficiently" than creative brilliance. Indeed, there are some clients for whom mediocre work delivered on time and on budget may be acceptable.

"Clients are accepting less creativity and less objectivity for cost efficiency," said John Aves, NAAN chairman and CEO of Aves Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich. "As long as they do that, they can handle advertising themselves. A good 20% of our industry dollars are going in-house.

"The only way we're going to get their business back is by becoming more creative but as cost efficient as their in-house operations," he added. "We still have to bait the hook, but it's got to backed with creativity and professionalism."

Mr. Aves and William Ashburn, senior VP-marketing at Lancaster, Pa.-based NAAN member agency Kelly Michener, which conducted the study, said clients are more interested in compensating agencies on an hourly or fee basis but are concerned about overall professionalism in the business.

"Clients are demanding a whole new level of professionalism from us," Mr. Aves said. "The image of how an advertising executive was created-the three-piece-suit guys who like martinis for lunch-seems from the research to be what's been driving clients away from agencies.

"Now that clients can do so many things themselves, they say, `I don't want to put up with it anymore; I want some real, professional service."'

Mr. Ashburn said, however, a number of clients surveyed who had taken work in-house noted perceived weaker creative and less objective thinking. This, he noted, provides an opportunity for agencies to recoup the business.

The results of the written survey, conducted late last year, was the topic of NAAN's spring conference in Miami in late April. The New York-based group, consisting of 24 U.S. and 46 international small to midsize agencies, compiled a database of 1,700 clients. Tabulation was cut off at 180 surveys, just more than a 10% response rate.

Throwing light on one of Madison Avenue's hottest debates, clients surveyed ranked the issue of agency size-small vs. large-as the least important when asked to prioritize 32 components they consider when selecting a shop to handle their account.

Factors of some-but not paramount-importance included integrated communication capabilities, agency experience on a similar account and longevity of client relationships, which clients said was more important than account rosters with big-name or blue-chip clients.

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