Archive for the ‘Agency marketing’ Category

Thanks to Neil Perkin for curating another highly topical, highly relevant, highly provocative Firestarters event on behalf of Google.

And thanks to Mel Exon, Martin Bailie and James Caig for providing said provocation by way of three alternative views on The New Operating System For Agencies.

This is not a summary of the evening.

This is a personal reflection on some themes that resonated with me whilst they’re are still fresh in the mind.

1) Outcomes, being asked the right questions, and “agency”.

Martin highlighted several differences in outlook between clients and agencies. One of these was that agencies focus on outputs, whereas clients are more concerned with outcomes.

More specifically, clients in marketing departments brief agencies to deliver outputs. They ask questions of agencies that demand outputs as an answer. And agency brief templates and agency systems are predicated on the expectation of delivering a specific kind of output.

However, if the client CEO or CFO rather than the marketing manager were to brief an agency on the issues keeping them awake at night they might pose different questions, questions that focus on commercial outcomes.

For instance there was a conversation about the (apocryphal?) story of JWT inventing the Mr Kipling brand in response to a brief that was actually about selling more flour.

Shifting said flour mountain was an outcome-based brief that generated an unexpected creative output from the agency.

Outcomes like this have commercial value. Commercial value to which the client will be able to attribute an accurate financial figure.

So if clients were to ask agencies more outcome-based questions there would be potential for agencies to earn outcome-based revenue for applied creativity.

This makes me think of “agency” as a state of mind rather than an office containing people. Most other agents – literary, theatrical, sporting, musical – are paid to make things happen for their clients. They take a cut from the proceeds of delivering specific outcomes. Why can’t we do something similar?

2) Indefatigable optimism

Mel talked about the dogged refusal of the BBH team to accept that the ASOS Urban Tour project was not technologically possible.

I think all agencies have that “nothing is impossible” attitude and there is nothing more exhilarating than being part of an agency team that is pulling in the same direction and pulling out all the stops to achieve the apparently impossible.

A long time ago when I was an account director at BBH we were in a very tight corner with one particular client. We were in a perfect storm of problems (“challenges” as we now have to call them). TV airtime booked, no client approved script, production budget issues, broadcast clearance issues, groundrush in terms of timings, you name it. In the midst of this storm John Bartle took me aside and said, “We’ll get through this. Agencies always do. The alternative is unthinkable.” And get through it we did with what turned out to be not one, but two award winning commercials that made a virtue of the situation we had been in.

We’ll get through this. Agencies always do. The alternative is unthinkable.

Mel went further, suggesting that this attitude could/should be crystalised into a specific role within the small, nimble, outcome-oriented, multi-skilled teams that work best in agencies large and small.

She described this role as that of “broker”. An entrepreneurial deal-maker and  partnership-former who can broker the team’s access to extraordinary inputs to, and extraordinary outlets for, its thinking.

3) Apollo 13

"Houston, we have a problem."

In summary, last night’s talks, the subsequent structured “unconference” sessions and the subsequent-to-that unstructured pub conversations left me thinking about NASA and how, in many ways, it is an interesting role model for agencies.

NASA is tasked with delivering specific outcomes. It has “missions”.

NASA applies creativity to deliver these outcomes.

NASA invests in R&D to enable its creativity. (James talked about our industry’s pitifully low levels of R&D investment).

Quite often NASA R&D that is initiated to achieve one outcome delivers new thinking/technology that can achieve other unexpected outcomes. These unexpected outcomes can often be monetised independently of the original mission brief.

As the crew of Apollo 13 found out NASA has that indefatigable optimism in spades.


“Agency” should be an outcome based state of mind.

Clients should ask us better, more interesting, outcome based questions.

Achievement of specific outcomes can be assigned a specific value which is not related to the time cost of delivering the solution.

We should organise ourselves to deliver unexpected outputs in response to outcome based briefs. There was a lot of talk last night about ideas coming from anywhere. Agency structures need to reflect that if we’re serious about this outcome stuff. The mere existence of copywriter/art director teams suddenly smacks of “the answer’s an ad, now what’s the question”.

Intellectual Property developed as part of the solution delivering process, but which is not part of the final solution, should be independently developed, prototyped and monetised by the agency.

Lots to think about. I just hope that when we get back to the day jobs we’ll have time to hone and apply that thinking.


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Competitive agency X sent a bespoke new business mailer to Blonde client Y.

The creative thrust of said mailer was that Agency X would give its right arm to work on Client Y’s business.

And the mailer included a fake arm.

Only it wasn’t a right arm.

It was a left arm.

Client Y invited us to join in their department-wide laughter at Agency X’s expense.

Rude not to really.

And it’s too good a story not to share.

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Coffee with an ex-client turned into a conversation about “happening” agencies around the world.

And from there to a revealing, client-eye view of agency marketing, agency models, agency philosophies and the ™ packaging of agency processes.

Said client must have had thousands of cold calls, hundreds of chemistry meetings and dozens of pitches from agencies large and small, in all disciplines, from all around the world.

He likened agencies to religions.

All claiming to represent the one true God of marcoms expertise.

Follow the Shoe™!

Follow the Gourd™!

I have all sorts of mixed feelings about this.

There is never only “one true way” to approach a communications brief. And to suggest that there is only makes you look stupid.

So if you believe that a single approach, a single philosophy, a single positioning can be made to be right for every client, you are deluded.

If, on the other hand, you’re setting your stall out to only work with like-minded clients and brands for whom your philosophy is appropriate then that is not deluded. That is planning. That is targeting. That is segmentation.

Indeed the ideal model for growing an agency profitably and happily is a virtuous snowball. You do a certain type of work for a certain type of client. This attracts more of a certain type of client. For whom you do more of a certain type of work. Which attracts…

N.B. By “a certain type of work” I don’t mean a house style. I mean work that is based on a consistent philosophy. Like TBWA’s disruption model. Or the challenger theory of Eat Big Fish.

From the outside looking in, it always seemed that HHCL worked like this. It set out its stall to do radical work that broke sector rules and that spat in the face of received advertising wisdom. This in turn attracted clients that were looking for radical work. And so on.

But, in an over-supplied market, very few agencies seem to have the financial strength, moral fibre, or marketing nouse to deliberately exclude themselves from doing business with any kind of client.

They’ll happily (and correctly) advise clients that they can’t be all things to all men.

Then conveniently forget to take a dose of their own medicine when marketing themselves.

There’s a particular type of agency marketing about which I have the most mixed feelings.

It’s the ™ packaging of widespread best practice. Taking processes, tricks of the trade, or tools that are used in lots of agencies, giving them a fancy (Fancy™) name and then presenting them as unique Intellectual Property (IP).

The associated mixed feelings go something like this…

From the inside looking out I can’t believe that Packaging™ works. It is so transparently obvious what is going on. Surely clients can see straight through it?

But work it does.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Even though that something is actually “nothing special” repackaged as “That Special Something™”.

Packaging™ is practiced by agencies of all disciplines.

But a good friend of mine once illustrated the issue with a beautifully observed hypothetical media agency example.

Said media agency takes the client’s brief, objectives, audiences, market position, competitive set, brand values etc and feeds them into its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ model.

The farm of mainframe computers that occupy the entire basement of the agency’s building start to run the multi-variable, artificially intelligent, highly complex algorithm that sits behind Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™.

The machines suck power from the national grid to such an extent that lights are dimmed over a several block radius.

People make coffee, have meetings, have lunch, chew pencils, have meetings, and go home for the evening, leaving the model to crunch and run overnight.

In the morning the model presents its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ answer…

“Television for reach. Radio and posters to build frequency.”

A hyper-niche, bespoke, tailored media plan that uniquely meets the need of that client.


This is a funny, made-up story to illustrate a point.

But it’s not hyperbole.

It isn’t “deliberate exaggeration for effect.”

Packaging™ really can be that bad and that brazen. I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen it happen. I don’t like it. But it works.

Hence the mixed feelings.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Steve Henry talked about the importance of creative people to agency start-ups in a recent Brand Republic blog post.

I think if I were to start an agency I’d want a natural salesperson on board.

Because it certainly wouldn’t be me.

I’ve got a decent track record when it comes to converting pitch opportunities.

And I’ll happily pick up the baton of a warm inbound approach.

Keywords : converting, warm, inbound.

But generating pitch opportunities is an entirely different skill.

Keywords : generating, cold, outbound.

And, in my experience, successful business development people (agencies hate the idea of “salespeople”) are a breed apart.

They are usually cultural misfits. Very important, but different.

Like goalkeepers.

Or hospital managers.

If you want recent evidence of how bad agencies can be at marketing themselves, check out the responses to this challenge from Fuel Lines, a US based new business consultancy.

Responding agencies had to describe themselves in 6 words or less.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

“Not like every other ad agency.”

“Top quality marketing that gets results.”

“It all starts with a question.”

For me, the best of a bad bunch is the one that happens to be at the top of the list.

“Big agency vets for half cost.”

At least that statement makes a promise and includes at least two potential benefits to a prospective client. Even if I’m not sure about agencies that overtly position themselves on price.

Fuel Lines then ran a poll to see which statements were preferred by visitors to its site.

My favourite scored only 1% of the vote.

The top ranking statement in this opinion poll was “Fuelling brand activation”, which pulled 27% of the 139 votes at the time of writing.

So what do I know?

For what it’s worth, given how out of touch I am with with popular opinion on these things, my current favourite agency line is this…

It’s Gonna be Awesome is the bold, liberated, twinkle in its eye promise from The Barbarian Group.

I guess you’d have to be American to be entirely comfortable saying this about yourself.

But I love it as a cocksure (not cocky) promise of professionalism, and as an internal yardstick for assessing the company’s output, culture, people and processes. It’s a hard selling and hard working statement of intent.

And their work backs it up.


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A couple of things that I’ve posted on the Blonde blog over the last few days.


A post that draws an analogy between being exposed in a glass bubble at the back of a Second World War bomber and being the public face of an organisation in 21st Century social media.


Details of a survey of Blonde clients that I conducted in preparation for a speaking engagement at Mobile Monday.

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Old advertising industry adage

“Agencies are crap at advertising themselves.”

Whilst there are a few notable exceptions, this remains pretty much a universal truth.

And in its universality lies its protection.

Because no ad agencies are any good at advertising themselves, they all get judged on the basis of the work they do for their clients.

New digital marketing industry adage

“If they’re not doing it for themselves, how can they do it for you?”

There are lots of digital agencies that are very good at promoting themselves using digital content and social media.

No universal crapness = no excuse, no protection.

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