What Do Agencies Care About?

Eighteen Months in the Life of The Small Agency Diary

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
There are no limits to how far some people will go to waste time. Take me, for example. Faced with a long list of pressing priorities, I decided to reread all the Small Agency Diary posts from the last 18 months and categorize them in some way to see what matters most to bloggers and readers alike. Well actually, Katie Stein, an extremely talented researcher (and niece of Stein Rogan founder Tom Stein, one of my competitors), put together a comprehensive spreadsheet. She created categories for Title, Topics, Post Description, Author, Number of Comments, and Date. We wanted to decipher what agency people like to read about and what topics drew the most passionate responses.

With the goal of understanding our audience on a multitude of levels, we looked at 226 posts that were posted between Oct. 1, 2008, which marked the beginning of the economic meltdown, and March 31, 2010, which, well, we hoped marked the beginning of a brighter day for the industry.

Taking top honors was the global economy, with 31 posts. No surprise, 25 of those were written between October 2008 and June 2009, the depth of the recession. Topics ranged from coping strategies to the advantages of being a small agency. In comparison, during the last nine months only six posts addressed the economy. Almost a year ago, two posts discussed how to prepare for an economic recovery, suggesting some optimism. Maybe it's a good time to reread those.

Agency culture, or various aspects of agency life, including breast pumps, got written about 28 times. Many of these posts celebrated what people like about working in a small agency environment. A popular post, with 19 responses, was The Ad Industry Is Still Fun, by Marc Brownstein. While people wrestle with the challenges of work life, frustrating clients, and the economy, they still get excited about the business.

Bloggers wrote 25 posts about client relations. How to deal with bad client behavior was a popular topic, including how to end a bad relationship. At the other end of the spectrum, many posts discussed how to understand clients better and deal with the pressures clients face in their jobs.

Not surprisingly, agency management, with 23 posts, looked at the emerging role of purchasing departments, consultants, acquisitions, growth, and hiring. Across the board, bloggers revealed their internal struggles and a commitment to adapt while protecting the best parts of the agency model.

Creativity, as a topic, formed the backbone of the Small Agency Diary, with 22 blog posts. These posts frequently drew the most passionate responses from readers. It was less debate and more the conviction that, amidst all the swirling changes, creativity remained one of the most central values for any agency. There was healthy respect for innovative creative, like the Pringles campaign, and scorn for less inspired efforts, like the ads for Snuggies. By my count, Bart Cleveland wrote ten posts on creativity and kept this flame alive.

Social media got its share of attention with 18 posts. Tom Martin and myself tended to be the biggest cheerleaders, droning on the most about the virtues of social networks. Then, there's what I call the Philly contingent with Peter Madden and Marc Brownstein showing some appropriate skepticism about these new channels. Madden set off a small firestorm with his brazen post, What the Facebook is Going on Here?

Only six posts addressed the digital challenges facing agencies. One of the most popular posts on the topic came from Andy Gould who wrote A Small Agency's Guide to Going Digital: Things I Wish I Knew 10 Years Ago. He received 42, mostly very appreciative comments.

Not surprisingly, bloggers jumped on the most controversial issues of the day, including Michael Phelps, Michael Vick and Tiger Woods, all males behaving badly. Nobody was overly impressed with this year's collection of Super Bowl ads except for me. I really liked the Red Cross PSA to raise money for Haiti, but no one seemed motivated to comment.

Twenty-two posts covered topics ranging from consumer insights, the need to reinvent the agency model, global partnerships, agency benefits, and general challenges of running an agency.

It surprised me that only three posts addressed new business directly and only three posts covered measurement and bottom line results. To be fair many more posts made reference to these topics.

A couple of themes cut across all topics: doing the right thing for clients, honoring great creative, building positive places to work, the role of small agencies in the industry, and responding to the demands of change. If I had to make one sweeping generalization, it would be that both bloggers and readers have their hearts in the right place.

Being a regular reader, I had my own favorite posts. Marc Brownstein always looked for the silver lining in the economy. Tom Martin's Mardi Gras Twitter project pushed some new boundaries for social-media measurement. Bart Cleveland's interviews with agency principals let us see into the thinking of some talented people. The recent series by Daryl Ohrt on how and why he sold his agency offered the kind of personal revelations that make any good blog worth reading.

Apropos of nothing, my favorite blog title was Marketers Beware: You May Be Sitting in Plato's Cave by Jennifer Modarelli. You've got to love anybody that brings a little Ancient Greek philosophy to the advertising business.

The question I'm left with is what are we not writing about? Are there agency topics too sensitive to discuss? What aspects of agency life do we need to shine a spotlight on? Tell me what they are, and I'll give them my best shot.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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