The Campaign du Jour Doesn't Come Cheap

Advertising Chefs Left With Fewer Ingredients

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Maureen Hall Maureen Hall
Last week, friends and I indulged our taste buds at Winston's premier gourmet restaurant -– a place where the chefs wear hats, not hairnets. The food was out of this world; every mouth-watering bite was a taste explosion with surprising flavor combinations. It was obvious the chef used only the freshest ingredients for his unique recipes and cared about not just the meal, but the plate presentation, wine-pairings and restaurant ambiance as well. (By now, I've either made you want lunch early, or you're wondering what this has to do with advertising.)

The last thing the chef served up was the bill. As to be expected, the grand total of the check was just that, grand. But as anyone who's studied supply and demand will tell you, as more and more food comes with microwave instructions or in super-sized combos, the value of a superior dining experience is elevated. The chef didn't itemize the bill to account for the hours he spent crafting his recipes and perfecting his sauces, he didn't jot down the hours he spent at the farmer's market thumping each melon in order to make the perfect sorbet, nor did he just charge for the hard costs -- milk, sugar and meat.

The price was the price, because creativity and artistry is not a product that can be valued by the hour. But by-the-hour pricing is exactly how many of our clients demand we submit invoices for advertising, design and branding services rendered, broken out into minutiae for bean counters.

As client budgets get tighter, and the market becomes saturated with crops of new small agencies, we're asked to perform the same marketing magic for less. As we won't do less than our very best on behalf of clients, we've been having trouble completing anything within these unrealistic budgets. Clients are expecting mind-blowing ideas even if they're not willing to pay for them, which has meant eating hours of account-planning and creation time. All of our accounts are starting to resemble pro-bono work, and an agency can't survive, let alone thrive, on pro-bono alone. The trouble starts day one when clients start cutting the first estimate. (I can just see them sitting at their computers like in the Priceline commercials, being goaded into negotiating.) And what happens? Inevitably, we cut the price to cultivate the relationship, hoping that later they'll value our commitment to their brand's success, which will lead to more work. That used to be true, but now, billing has turned into an endless spiral of pleading phone calls to producers and searching our pockets for receipts. I'm sure that one or two chefs throughout history have rolled their eyes and reduced a bill to quiet a frugal customer -– but not many of them do that. Something else you'll never see a chef do is serve a fillet when someone orders a hamburger, but our agency creatives always want to overshoot the client's expectations by a mile.

Maybe there are smart marketers out there amongst all these "agents of procurement" that would praise an agency for proposing what they felt was right when launching a product, even if it meant increasing the budget, but where are they? How do we find them? And once we do, how do we get on the same page on how "value" is defined? I know many of you read this blog for answers. And after many years of struggling through this dilemma and reading countless articles about new billing structures and the death of timesheets, I still haven't found a good solution. I can't help feeling that it's strange we're in the business of building brands that consumers would be willing to pay more for yet we struggle to justify the worth of our thinking.

Has anybody out there cracked this code yet? If so, please post a comment. And may I be the first to say, "thanks," from all of us who are tired of eating humble pie.
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