Ad agencies, be careful what you wish for. The big client can also be the “Big C.”

June 15, 2015

Science

Science


It’s only a metaphor… It’s only a metaphor…

I don’t know if every agency has this double-edged sword slicing through it but every one I’ve ever worked for has. I’m talking about one conspicuously large client that takes up as much space as all the others put together. Obviously, this “problem” has its upside. Namely billings. Giant clients bring agencies money. And, well, the importance of that cannot be underestimated.

Ironically, it is often underestimated. Budgets have a way of shrinking. Like any client big ones change their mind. First quarter projections are seldom realized. Half way through the fiscal year agencies are typically chasing a number. It’s never quite what it once seemed. Sometimes it isn’t even close.

In theory, big clients provide numerous big creative opportunities. But that has not been my experience. Why? Big clients are big companies. And big companies are layered, rife with politics. Marketing is no exception. Indeed, it is often the department most challenged by bureaucracy. Marketing is divided into silos. Each silo has a group head. He reports to a marketing director, who, in turn reports to the CMO. The CMO must deliver results to the CEO. The CEO is beholden to her shareholders. Getting work in front of him or her who matters is a merciless gauntlet. Risk aversion is the result. Decisions are made by committee if they are made at all. Really smart people become less so. Fear permeates these ecosystems, obvious as algae on coral. In these conditions, saying “no” becomes the easiest option. This translates into endless, futile presentations, where your audience is mostly worried about what his many superiors will think. Kicking the can is what happens. And that can is creative.

Alas, this is only the tip. Monoliths dominate an agency, changing it, dividing it. There are those who service the big client… and everyone else. A house divided takes its toll on everyone. Resentments develop between sides. The money is over here but the creative opportunities are over there. Some staff work harder than others, logging grueling hours on thankless tasks. When certain individuals get to go home for dinner and others never do, it’s patently unfair. Or the opposite happens. Those not working on the “important” client feel left out, less than. Rightly or wrongly, they may wonder why no one in management cares about what they’re doing. Perception is reality and the perception ain’t good.

The ‘us and them’ scenario is very common in Adland but that doesn’t make it okay. Agency culture, the thing so many of us like to wag about, becomes agency dysfunction. Often the two sides separate, forming agencies within agencies. This works until it doesn’t. Before you know it these kingdoms grow weary of sharing resources. The strong tire of helping the weak. The poor turn bitter from subservience. I give you Game of Thrones.

While the holding company model is often rightly criticized for this very thing I’m saying it can and does happen at any agency, regardless of affiliation. The whale –a dream come true for every agency- can quickly become a nightmare.

What’s the solution? I can assure you it isn’t rejecting big clients. Having been through the looking glass numerous times, I can only offer these suggestions. If camps are inevitable do not allow fences to go up. Smash them wherever you see them. Be open about what is happening but refrain from judgment or cynicism. Rather, think about what the other is going through. Appreciate their value even if you question it. This goes for everyone in the company. Newer recruits must respect the complexities of management and management must remain sensitive to what everyone in the company is experiencing. Easier said than done. But trying to remain right sized in an unbalanced boat is paramount to staying afloat.

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