Bailout or Not, the Storm Is Going to Be Rough

It's OK to Be Worried, but Now Is Not the Time to Despair

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
My friend Murray owns a multimedia staging company, and during the last recession, he said, "I wouldn't mind if this recession went a little longer. I've got a few more competitors that I'd like to get rid of." That's one way to approach the developing economic mess. Personally, I'm not that cocky.

I'll spare you my analysis of the congressional bailout plan, but I do know something about what happens to agencies during a downturn. I've been through at least three recessions and hopefully learned a few things along the way. In each case, I'd say my naivete was stripped away, and I've had to accept some unpleasant realities.

First, let me get all of my negative observations out of the way, so that I can focus on the positive.

When the stock market tumbles, the effect will ripple through the agency world, as sure as the sun will rise in the morning. Some agencies get hit early; some get hit late. I've seen agency executives confidently say they are immune because of their market sectors. They just haven't seen the right hook moving toward their chin. Maybe there are some exceptions, but all of us should expect a bumpy road to varying degrees, maybe a few major potholes.

Agencies live and die on the health of corporate America. When big business feels pain, it hits some agency budgets at the speed of light. Sad to say, the best campaign in the world won't save you when no one needs, or is buying, marketing programs. A lot of our success comes from our talents, but a lot of it also comes from market conditions.

It's hard to accept, but tsunami-like forces are heading our way. We don't control them, and all the feel-good actions in the world won't make a damn bit of difference. Don't expect staff pep talks, extra sales calls and a little belt tightening to hold back the floodwaters.

But let's not despair. There is always hope, and business is at heart an optimistic affair.

Good agencies will survive. That's a fact. They will adapt to tough conditions. They will innovate. For what it's worth, here is my advice to all of us, including myself.

Be agile. The most agile agencies will win. They will learn to produce programs in days, not weeks and months. This will require breaking down moribund agency processes that get in the way of speed. We're indignant that people want great thinking and breakthrough creative on accelerated schedules. Those, however, who can respond quickly to critical business demands will excel.

Deliver savings. Success will also go to the agencies that can deliver less expensive programs by multiple factors. That doesn't mean cutting margins or cutting corners. It means exploring new ideas, and modifying old ones, that can be delivered at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs and that deliver results. Bet on those agencies that fully grasp the power of social media and can connect it to their clients' business strategies.

ROI. ROI. ROI. We're all talking about marketing accountability, but here is a bottom-line truth: Agencies that can show how marketing investments deliver a return that companies care about will do just fine.

Knowledge is power. Those of you who know your clients' business better than your clients know it themselves will have a decided advantage. Invest in deep domain expertise.

Best foot forward. In times of crisis, clients want and deserve the most senior attention from their agency. Reorient your delivery model, so that every client interaction includes the best thinkers and strategists from the agency. They will value you.

Don't succumb to temptation. Early on, I learned that bad times bring out bad behavior. Avoid those impulses at all costs. In the coming months, we will be competing against more agencies for scarcer pieces of business, and we may be tempted to play with sharp elbows. Play fair; we're often competing with our friends. Business owners cannot afford to be greedy. We need to take care of the staff and partners that helped us thrive in better times.

We don't control the economy, and we may not have much influence on how Congress votes on the bailout package. But we do control the quality of life inside our agencies, and that's where we should focus. Smart, creative, collegial people who like each other and enjoy working toward a common goal can survive a lot worse than this recent Wall Street debacle.
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