Doing That Crap Is Going to Cost You

Agencies (and Clients) Pay More for Shoddy Work

By Published on .

Derek Walker
Derek Walker
Paying more doesn't get a client better work. In reality, crappy work tends to cost both the agency and the client more, a lot more than anyone realizes.

Oops. Uh ... Attention all clients!! Please stop reading, and proceed to another post or article. This is insider information -- agency eyes only! Please come back next post.

OK now that the clients are gone, let's talk about one of the greatest lies in advertising -- that great work costs more to come up with than crappy work.

And since there's no one but advertising folks here, we can speak honestly -- doing crappy work actually costs more in the long term. We all know it -- or at least we've had an idea it does -- but no one wants to say it aloud. Well, I'm singing like a canary.

Crappy work can suck the life out of an agency and the money out of a client's budget.

What is this "crappy work" of which I speak? That's the hard part -- defining it. I have struggled with coming up with a solid definition for crappy work. It isn't any one type of account or job. Most of us really don't know if an assignment is crappy until we're handed the brief or attend a meeting. Generally speaking, we're talking about assignments with so many restrictions and mandates that there's no room for anything except to execute the client's directions -- in other words, the agency becomes no more than set of hands. We're talking assignments where there's no room for developing an insight or understanding that will deliver for clients the results they want and deserve.

I can hear the choir warming up to exclaim:

"Any paying account is a good account."

"As long as you're making money, you should be happy."

"In this economy, you have to take what you get."

To this I say, "Lies, all lies!!!"

The quality of the assignment matters to those doing the work. They may not vocalize their displeasure at having to work on an assignment from hell, but they're thinking it! They're telling their spouses, friends, family, recruiters, minster, doctors, barbers and anyone else that they can all about the turd they have to polish. And if management is paying attention, they're telling you through their actions and demeanor.

Now, before cries of "unprofessionalism" rise up, allow me to offer this nugget of thought: "It is the utmost level of professionalism to take an assignment and attempt to make it the best you can." And that is what many people do everyday -- they shine that turd until it sparkles like a flawless diamond.

That is part of the problem.

Passionate, artistic types don't know how to "phone it in." They'll place too much time and energy into an assignment, trying to make it work. It isn't in their DNA to settle (or it shouldn't be). This means they will spend more time thinking and rethinking things, trying to find that gem or nugget that will make this assignment work. And this takes time. And time in the agency world is money.

For the agency if it were only about eating billable hours to stay on budget, most would be okay. But manpower hours are the tip of this iceberg. Let's throw in high turnover, low morale, poor reputation, weak client loyalty and stunted growth.

The client doesn't fare much better. Yes, they pay for more hours than the assignment should have taken, but it doesn't stop there. A reputation of being a difficult client can result in higher agency fees (not that I have ever heard of a client being charged more for being a pain. No, no one would ever do that.), less-experienced and less-talented agency personnel assigned to the account, fewer agencies willing to pitch their business and ineffective work.

Every agency or freelancer at one time or another gets a crappy assignment; it is the nature of the beast. What I'm talking about is a culture of crappy work. I believe many of us can identify agencies that have gained a reputation for doing work that can been classified as "crappy."

So, how do we move beyond a culture of crappy work?

We take a hard look at ourselves, and decide to take some "leaps of faith." We dare to believe that our clients are actually paying us to help their business grow. We do our jobs.

The first and most important leap is to realize that this is not a creative or an account-service department problem. It's an agency problem. It's the responsibility of everyone at the agency to guard against developing a culture of doing crappy work -- to work hard to not settle. Drink the Kool-Aid that the quality of the work matters, drink deep.

Second, it is management's job to set the pace. It is called "leadership" for a reason. Lead your people! Communicate a standard and stand behind it. Do not leave your account service or creative folks twisting in the wind with the client. Let clients know that your agency is more than sets of hands to execute their wishes. Communicate your standard to clients. The first couple of meetings are important; during them you let everyone understand how you will and will not be treated, and what it is like to work with your agency. Earn your paycheck!

I once heard an agency CEO tell a potential client during a pitch: "It isn't our job to make you comfortable or do things you will like. Our job is to make you uncomfortable, to make you squirm in your seats. Our job is to develop solutions you would have never thought of." He set the expectation both internally and externally.

Third, "Release the Kraken!" You've assembled a team of talented people, now unshackle them and let them work. Support pushing things, encourage looking for better solutions and inspire them to challenge the norm. Demand that they dig deeper and push further for that nugget of truth that will resonate with the people you are trying to reach. This goes for every department. Free your people to do their jobs, trust them. And if you can't trust them, you have even bigger issues.

The best defense against building a culture of doing crappy work is having a set of standards. Communicate them to everyone and defend them vigorously. Never, ever sleep on who you are and what you provide.

Okay, let the clients back in.

Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising based in Columbia, S.C.
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