Digital A-List 2010

Fried Says 'Full-Service' Ad Agency a Meaningless Phrase

Five Tips for Becoming More Agile and Focused

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NEW YORK ( -- So you want to be fast, agile and digital? Jason Fried suggests agencies take a page from his book.

Jason Fried
Jason Fried Credit: Gary He
Mr. Fried, co-founder and president of software company 37signals, let loose on agency folks today at the Ad Age Digital Conference in New York, addressing one of the biggest issues facing agency adaptation to the digital world: specialization. Too many agencies, in trying to be all things to all marketers, and getting bogged down and doing a disservice to themselves and their clients.

Mr. Fried was interviewed by Ben Malbon, executive director of innovation for Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, who pointed out that "from an agency point of view, there isn't a good agency out there that isn't working out how it can be better." Out of the discussion came five tips for staying nimble in the digital age.

Focus on what works
While it might be tempting to take on a client's entire business, there's no way one agency can do everything well. "It's really easy to do too much," said Mr. Fried, who often echoed the book he co-authored, "Rework."

"Agencies listen to their [clients] too much. When you listen to your [clients] you starting wanting to do too much. That's when you start doing things you don't believe in."

Stick with what you know
Instead of trying to manage "full-service end to end" -- a term Mr. Fried finds somewhat meaningless -- he urged focus and specialization. He pointed to 37signal's history, as it started out as an agency and web-design firm and ultimately evolved into a software shop. "We were going to 'underdo' everybody else," he said.

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"I don't think people should do things they don't understand," said Mr. Fried, in response traditional agencies' attempts to add digital. Even digital agencies, such as SapientNitro and R/GA, have been adding "traditional" services to their already strong digital offerings in the last year. "Companies end up hiring people to do these things they don't know how to do, they get really big and then they slow down. That's how you get big and slow and expensive. What's wrong with doing just a few things really well?"

Don't sell the steps
Mr. Fried pointed to multiple approvals as another culprit that slows down the process. While it's lucrative for agencies to get big fees for big projects, does a client really need so many steps?

"If you stop promising things, you don't have to deliver them," he said. "All people care about is the end product."

Grow slowly to deliver faster work
When it is time to grow, Mr. Fried cautioned against staffing up too fast. "It's important not to hire in anticipation of work," he said. "Feeling like you want to do more and not being able to, I'm okay with that. You are better hiring to alleviate pain than to hire for pleasure."

Bite off only what you can chew
To keep projects on schedule, Mr. Fried suggests breaking up a giant project into manageable pieces. When one $100,000 project is broken up piecemeal, each chunk has a better chance of being on time.

"It's the agency's fault when projects run long; I don't think it's the clients fault," he said. "Work on short-term projects. What can you accomplish in two weeks?"

He points to a project that his company cut down into one-page, $3,500 per piece chunks. "Instead of doing the big huge mega-product like agencies, do one page in one week."

He added: "Cut it down as small as you can and price it piecemeal. ... Have confidence in your work. [Clients] are going to keep wanting it because it's good."

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