Let’s be fans: how clients get the best from agencies
Headlines continue to chronicle the woes agencies face at the hands of demanding clients. There’s Audi, which ungenerously put its business to pitch after almost half-a-century of success with BBH; big pharmaceutical companies, like GSK, continue to “simplify” their rosters while shrinking compensation; and there’s my former employer, General Mills, which is on the hunt for more agencies with what sounds like a rifle of rough terms.
Yes, procurement horses are stampeding all around.
None of this is surprising, of course. We’re now seeing the stark eruption of a long-simmering de-valuation of creative agencies. With the economy booming, marketing spending continues to rise, and yet, according to Gartner, agency compensation continues to fall. That gap, growing wider, harbingers a bust.
Now, every agency knows there are many ways in which it can improve: get faster, for starters. But what hope does any agency have against any client whose very disposition seems parsimonious and punishing?
There is another way.
Have you heard Diego Scotti (Verizon) rave about his team at McCann or Fernando Machado heap blush-inducing praise on the agencies behind Burger King’s remarkable efforts these past few years? These chief marketing officers, and a precious handful like them, aren’t mere “partners” to their marketing agencies; they’re something better: they’re fans. And I don’t believe they’re fans because their agencies deliver results; no, it works the other way around: their fandom—that irrepressible adolescent enthusiasm—is the very thing that propels their teams to crack great work in the first place.
Listen up, marketers: the first step to making great marketing is to love the people making it.
Don’t just take my opinion for it. It’s science. A team of researchers at Concordia University spent years studying elite athletes to arrive at a conclusion that should shame every barking coach (or client): the very best performers are those athletes supported by the most empathetic coaches, the ones who cradle them with “liking, warmth and interest.” That’s as hot and heaving as an academic report gets, but the moral is clear: love is a formidable leadership strategy.
And it’s especially true with creative folks, for whom work, even their commercial work, is a manifestation of their deepest selves. Challenge, conflict, fear and drama can motivate—but those dark forces only birth bright results when they come from a safe-space of support. Like with children, you can be disappointed, frustrated and angry with your agencies but, for god’s sake, be on their side. Be a fan!
If agencies felt like their clients loved them and believed in them, rooted for them, like their favorite teams or bands, even, especially when things get rocky, those agencies would deliver their greatest work, the kind of work that only gets cracked when a team has as much freedom to soar as they have permission to crash.
We might have more Pinkertons. We’d certainly have more Blue Albums.
The mark of a great fan isn’t the ability to offer praise; it’s the capacity to offer forgiveness, and mostly, to tolerate (even enjoy) the inevitable rollercoaster of ups-and-downs with a deep and near-unwavering commitment to the underlying cause.
As a former client, I understand why it’s hard to be a patient, hopeful fan when you’re in the crucible of a corporation. If the Jets lose season after season, you’re heartbroken. If you miss your sales goals quarter after quarter, you’re fired. So, of course, when trouble strikes, the temptation to switch teams is a strong one—and sometimes, certainly even a justified one. But, perhaps more often than not, the reason you’re in danger to begin with has little to do with your ad agency. Perhaps a corporate focus on short-term results and the accompanying small-minded briefs that focus spawns are the real weights on your wings. Maybe you’re holding your agency accountable for the wrong things. Or, most tragically, maybe your white-knuckled worry is the very thing plugging up the potential of your agency. It might just be that clients do get the work they deserve.
None of that is an answer to the reality of needing marketing that performs for demanding shareholders, but they’re all good reasons to think (at least) twice before kicking your agency to the creative curb. Maybe with a new offensive coach and a hot-shot rookie, next year will be their year.
So how can a client be an agency fan? Start at the start: pick an agency that excites you, a team that inspires you irrationally. See something in their work, their thinking, their people, their vibe, that utterly delights you. The only way to hire an agency is with your heart; fall hard.
And when you do hire them:
Pay them, properly. A fan will buy the album. A fan will get the best seats they can afford at the stadium. Being a fan of an agency demands you compensate them, fairly, generously, even. You’re a business partner, for sure, but also, in some strange way, you’re a patron. You’re not buying nuts. By all means explore all the fair and creative models you can imagine but don’t convolute ways to game a couple extra weeks of interest payments. You know you’ll get better results, business-building ideas, when your team feels secure, both emotionally and financially.
Praise them, publicly. It’s confounding and self-defeating that some marketers make it so hard for their agencies to promote themselves. Sometimes they don’t allow agencies to publicize the work they create together. Sometimes they make it so difficult to enter award shows. Don’t you want your agency to bask in glory? Don’t you want the world to rub their hands in envy? Remember when Arby’s bought billboards around Minneapolis thanking Fallon for their help in turning around their business? Fans are megaphones for the teams they love. Put your agency’s stickers on your backpack. Help your agency feel like the heroes you want them to be.
Protect them, again and again. If Vampire Weekend came to my house to share their latest work, I’d sure as hell be at the meeting. I wouldn’t send a nervous committee of my children to work through a few rounds of feedback before the band’s work got to my “level.” No, I’d show up with an open heart ready to be dazzled. I’d be giddy. And I’d give the band exactly what they want, what they crave as creatives: a raw, honest, emotional reaction. And if I happened to be disappointed, I wouldn’t shout it around the house. I wouldn’t hide my own inadequacy from my fellow family behind a head shake and a self-absolving, “Well, they didn’t nail it this time.” I’d talk to the band, with as much gratitude and clarity as I could muster and a sincere belief that they’ll crush it the next time. Because that’s what fans do.
Pay, praise and protect your agency but, above all, express a passionate commitment to them—a commitment that transcends the latest sales report, tracking study or “disappointing” meeting. This kind of enthusiasm‚ this fandom, will create the competitive advantage your business craves: a devoted agency that is determined to perform wonders for you. In fact, I suspect a “good” agency only becomes a “great” agency when its clients are its best fans. That’s the power of cheering.