Show your agency tough love – it will thank you for it

When I started writing these columns, I promised myself I wouldn’t stray into the world of agencies too much.

Richard Madden

There are other magazines for agency people. This one is for marketers. (There’s a column in that dichotomy, but let us leave that for another occasion.)

That said, I think it is time I made an exception. Because the frequency with which accounts come up for review these days indicates to me that there is something wrong in the relationship between marketers and their agencies.

I think it could be time marketers reminded themselves of the need to show their agencies a little tough love. Such love comes in many forms but let me offer four starters for ten. I would be delighted to hear your own.

My first piece of advice is to avoid the temptation to do your agency’s job for them. You are paying them to think. If you want the 
best answer from them, try not to prejudice the solution they give you in the way you frame your brief. Describe the outcome you want, not the ad, social campaign or customer relationship management programme that is already lurking in the back of your mind.

The next tip I am stealing unapologetically from Russell Davies, planner to the stars. As the agency gets to grips with your brief, look your planner in the eye and ask him or her exactly how the work is going to be conducted. There are lots of models of communications. It is the planner’s job to nail down which of those models the agency team is working to.

At the simplest level, are you adopting a System One, low-involvement ‘nudge’ approach, or a System Two, high-involvement, engagement approach? The creative, media and evaluation strategy will be radically different for each.

My next bit of advice is to caution against leading the witness. Let me explain.

A nameless agency wins a Scottish Malt Whisky account. Within days of the news appearing in the trade press, the creative team is at the distillery learning all about the grain, the soft spring water and the seasoned oak barrels. It is at this point that the seeds of the account’s destruction are sown. Because almost without realising it, the agency has drunk the client’s poison along with all those generous free samples.

The result will be totally undifferentiated ‘heather and weather, peat and sleet’ whisky advertising, complete with wailing Gaelic 
pop-folk soundtrack and close-up vignettes of craggy-faced distillery men. Twelve months in, the tracking needles will not have budged, 
and the client will be looking for a new agency.

By all means give your agency, especially the creative people, all the access they want to your product and your people. But if you want fresh work, do not force-feed them your stories. Let them find their own.

My last piece of advice is probably the most important.

It is a myth that it takes bravery to buy brilliant creative ideas from an agency. Think about the campaigns you admire, and at the heart of them you will find an insight so unarguable that it leads right back to the commercial objective like a thread of gold.

When the agency presents creative work to you, ask the team to define the insight in a sentence. If they cannot, politely ask them to go away and think about it. If on the second attempt they still fail to define the insight, there is a good chance that the work has no idea in it. In which case, to quote David Ogilvy, it will pass the customer like a ship in the night. So politely suggest that the team starts again.

Coming as it does from an agency person, you may think all this sounds a little masochistic. But in fact it is thoroughly self-interested.

I have had nice clients and I have had tough clients. Provided they treat me and my colleagues with courtesy and respect, I would much rather have the latter.

They care. And because they are prepared to engage assertively with the thinking you present, the standard of debate is higher. Which means 
the solutions that your agency comes up with are more effective. And as for the agency, well, it won’t have to worry about that dreaded 
re-pitch for years to come.

Readers' comments (2)

  • This is great - I'd like to be more overt with our clients about how they should treat us to get the best out of us and this is a good start - insight must come before creative.

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  • Richard, thought your ideas here were very astute, especially the point about avoiding the temptation of "leading the witness." Having spent 10 years as a client-side marketer, I noticed a tendency for brand teams to "talk to themselves" heavily locked into internal stories passed down over the years from one incumbent brand marketer to the next. Providing agencies with a clean slate ultimately sets them up to create truly remarkable creative.

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