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“Awesome strategy, Ted! Next week’s meeting is gonna be killer.”

Recently, I read an essay from an anonymous source in our industry that stuck with me. (I did not save the link. My bad.) But the gist of his argument was that within marketing services companies far too many big talkers achieve more success than they deserve and, moreover, are exponentially degrading the profession. Paraphrasing further, the author observed how smooth talking, jargon-dropping, critical thinkers have become so prevalent and dominant that we’ve become a business of talkers not doers, endlessly revising briefs and tweaking PPT’s instead of producing actual work. The front end has become so bogged down by process that we are making lots of meetings and few campaigns. Which of course suits the talkers who, by endlessly analyzing and criticizing, merely create more process.

Are we having fun yet?

It goes without saying that these machinations are antithetical to the flow of any decent agency and the creative department in particular. Yet, before we go off and blame the strategists for all this hot air, it’s only fair to point out slick talkers and their myriad sins have plagued Adland since before the Mad Men era. Then one usually pointed to the evil account guy. He made lives miserable for countless sensitive creatives. “It’s not right yet. We need another round.”

Still, at least back then agencies produced work. And lots of it. So much so there were actual production departments. Now many agencies don’t even have one producer on payroll, let alone a department, opting instead to bring in the occasional freelancer for the role or, more typically, leaving the job to hardscrabble project managers. It’s all hypothetical. Recycling stock. Fodder.

According to the author it is indeed strategy gone wild. The pandemic of verbal diarrhea is especially acute in the technology and B2B arenas, where strategists often define the marketing department. As new platforms and complicated algorithms take over Adland, it seems likely the talking will only get louder.

With less output and more input, the vicious cycle hurts everyone caught in it. Except for big talkers. Under the guise of “getting it right” they have become manifest, perpetuating their roles as agency gate-keepers.

For brilliant copy and adroit creative leadership (even if just for a goddam powerpoint), hit me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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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.

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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Integrated shop. Unified model. Gyro refers to it as “Uno.” Call your agency (its culture, its model) what you will. And on some days those terms can be pretty brutal. As some of you know I’ve likened working in an agency to being on a submarine: We’re at sea. We’re at battle. We’re in this thing together. Because, after doing good work, that’s what it’s all about: working together. That’s what the word “integration” originally meant before all these holding companies got a hold of it.

But today the glass is half full. If I think about it it’s more than half full. Our cup runneth over. Therefore, in this good mood, I’d like to give you my spin on integration, paraphrasing a parable I heard some time ago. I’m sure you’ll agree, it applies now more than ever…

On the outskirts of a small village, the farmers, loggers and hunters would gather under a lone, ancient and leafless tree, everyday at noon, when the sun was most high and the heat was too unbearable for working.

The farmers threw down their bags of apples, giving a snort to the fruitless limbs towering over their heads. “Without any fruit, what good is this tree, anyway?” The loggers shook their heads in agreement. “The old wood from this tree isn’t fit to burn.” The hunters among them also agreed. “Without fruit or places to nest, there are no birds to kill.” They were all unanimous: the tree was worthless. And so it went, for days upon years, hundreds of hunters and farmers and loggers, bitching about this lifeless, barren tree.

It never dawned on them that without this great tree they would have had no place to rest their feet or shade their heads. And without this great tree they would never have formed a community, and been able to share their experience, strength and hope…or find out where the fruits were…and the firewood for winter…to learn the tricks of their various trades…

And so here we are, art directors, writers, planners and suits. Working more and more together, more and more everyday. Sharing our experience, strength and hope. And while I’m sure we’re too busy to sit around and complain, do any of us realize how rare community like this is? And how blessed we all are to have it? I know I’m blessed.

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From this…
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To this…

I first wrote this draft while I was between jobs, reflecting on some things that had challenged me most when it came to true integration and moving our agency from good to great. Revisiting them now, the following observations are still seldom discussed, let alone acted upon. I’m not sure why. They’re true, more or less, for all advertising agencies. Solving for them strikes me as critical in terms of which agencies compete and win. Let me know what you think.

1. The myth of good work at all costs. Unfortunately, that simply is not possible. First of all, “good” is entirely subjective. The agency’s most successful campaign may be a dog at award shows and vice versa. In addition, as we all know, some clients are less willing to take risks with creative than others. Forcing them to drink from the well never works. You might get one “good” piece of creative but the client will most likely hold a resentment and eventually move their business elsewhere. Few agencies are flush enough to call their own shots, especially now, during times of economic instability and seismic changes in media. None of this is new. But when agencies rhapsodize about doing brilliant work and then don’t the disconnect hurts inside the agency as much as out. For example, an account that does so-so work but generates good revenue fosters a dysfunctional personality within the agency.

2. The myth of 360 campaigns. Rare is the client that wants all its marketing from one agency. Despite our much pimped credentials to do it, we have precious few clients that want 360 marketing campaigns from us and us alone. This is a bigger deal than one might first think, impacting the people, the place and the work. For example, if an agency has a sizable client that only does work below the line, say direct marketing, catalogue and digital, then the agency has to staff accordingly. Those employees tend to be specialists, whether they like it or not. I say that because though the employees may be virtuosos at creating direct mail campaigns chances are they want to expand their skill sets, doing TVC’s for example. Because the agency has allocated them primarily for doing this work on that client, these individuals can feel pigeonholed, which frankly they are. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had my hand slapped trying to use some of these people on other projects. “They are not paid by that client. You have to look elsewhere for help.” Your staff becomes resentful and demoralized. “I thought this was an integrated shop,” one might say. “But this is all I ever work on.” In the long run nobody is happy with this arrangement. Employees complain and/or defect. If they stay their work becomes rote.

3. The myth of digital nirvana. The proverbial elephant in the room, so-called digital shops have begun to recognize that even their best and brightest people want to do something other than online campaigns. If these staffers perceive their shop to be digital-only they get antsy. This is why so many of those shops are exploring ways to build out their advertising capability. They want to make fabled 360 marketing campaigns just like everyone else, and not just because of increasing revenue streams but because their people want it, too. The creative staff craves the permanence of print and the notoriety of TV. Ask any headhunter. Despite all the talk of digital platforms killing TV, TV is precisely what many so-called digital specialists want to be making!

I’m reminded of the Dr. Seuss fable, The Sneetches, whereby the plain-bellied Sneetches (traditional creative) desperately want stars on their bellies like the star-bellied Sneetches (digital creative). Midway through the story the tables turn and, well, everyone feels slighted.

Many people, including me, have written about future creative departments containing mostly hybrid personnel, capable of working in all channels. However, we won’t get there if agencies keep holding onto old ideas about who works on what. Caste systems have always existed in agencies. Breaking down barriers in creative, production, and media is the only way to establish true integration. And not just for our beloved, bloated agency credentials but in our cliquey hallways as well.