Archive for the ‘Client service’ 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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I pay you for your opinion.

So said a client of mine way back when.

(Maybe it’s just me but I never fail to be pleasantly surprised when someone is explicit in placing value on my point of view.)

In this instance it wasn’t any kind of strategic input that said client was seeking. It was counsel. More specifically he wanted a candid point of view on a mutual acquaintance.

And “I pay you for your opinion” was a not-so-subtle indication of his irritation at my hesitance.

I actually think that hesitation in these circumstances is natural and desirable. There are issues of integrity and fairness at play when it comes to talking about other people.

But the main point my client was making has stuck with me ever since.

Candour is a scarce resource and therefore carries a high value.

And candour is scarce because it has consequences.

You’ll know this if your job function involves appraising and developing others. How a person is going to work with you and respond to you in the workplace will undoubtedly be affected by how sensitively you handle those areas where a candid examination of personal and professional qualities is called for. The fact that you have to have an ongoing working relationship with someone can mitigate against true candour.

I’ve recently agreed to mentor someone. And I’ve quickly discovered that mentoring is very different to managing. Separated from the day-to-day consequences of pointed questions and pointed observations, candour comes much more easily. For both parties.

And that degree of separation from the consequences of advice and counsel is one of the greatest privileges of agency life.

Marketing Directors and CEO’s ask you questions that they might be embarrassed to ask one of their own people. Or they ask you questions when they worry that the perceived consequences of a straight answer might deter their own people from giving one.

The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is to be less than 100% candid, no matter how much you think the truth might hurt. The truth might hurt but it shouldn’t hurt the relationship. Quite the reverse in fact.

Because they pay you for your opinion after all.

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This is a harrowing piece of film which reveals the brutal break-them-down-and-build-them-back-up approach being used by some social media agencies and consultants to get traditional advertising clients to lose the message based, paid for interruption mindset and embrace conversation.

Click image to view clip


For “save American lives” read “join the conversation.”

For “let go David Webb” read “let go one way communication.”

Will you give yourself to this [social media] program?

Is this how advertisers feel?

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The first rule of Pitch Club is that you most definitely DO want potential clients to talk about your presentation afterwards.

And they’re more likely to do so if they can actually remember what you said.

We’ve all been there.

You attend a presentation.

Someone who didn’t attend asks you to paraphrase later the same day.

And you can’t.

Or at best you struggle to piece it all back together.

Crystal clarity and an unmissable straight-line narrative thread go a long way towards winning pitches.

Not only do they make you more memorable, but the process of stripping things back, of straightening out the chicanes and removing interesting but unnecessary tangents actually invests your presentation with a much greater sense of conviction.

And that sense of conviction, allied with your clarity, only adds to your memorability.

One of the best pieces of training I ever had was when I blagged my way onto the judging panel for the media agency pitch process that one of my clients was conducting.

This story would be better if I could name names but I’d better not, even though with the passing of time I don’t think I’d be betraying any commercial confidences.

The pitch brief asked for media strategies on two brands in the client’s portfolio. Two brands with quite different issues.

It was a thorough brief and a fair process in terms of access to the client and opportunity to ask questions etc.

My abiding memory of three out of the four pitch presentations is the sheer level of work that had gone into them. The kitchen sink had been well and truly chucked. The thoroughness of the research and the quality of the presentation materials, including video content, were impressive.

My abiding memory of the fourth pitch is what they said.

They structured the presentation as a boxing card.

“Bout 1” for Brand X was billed as Boys versus Girls.

They framed the media planning issue as a straight decision of prioritising one gender over another.

“Bout 2” for Brand Y was billed as Safe versus Dangerous.

Brand Y had a reputation for high profile, ‘out there’, risky creative work. And agency 4 contended that this ‘dangerous’ creative work had historically run in very ‘safe’ places.

Agency 4 stripped their presentation back to ask these two questions and then emphatically answered them. No diversions. No temptation to pad things out with evidence of effort, unless it added to the narrative. Or if there was temptation it had been resisted.

Agency 4 won the pitch by a country mile. Less than half an hour after the other presentations we genuinely struggled to agree as a group on what had actually been recommended.

And, from memory, I don’t think the client actually agreed with Agency 4’s recommendation on one of the briefs.

But they’d seen enough to know that they wanted that team on their side.

And that’s the second rule of Pitch Club.

The second rule of Pitch Club is to remember what the client is looking to buy.

The pitch brief may ask you to present ideas, but the client is looking to buy an agency.

But that’s another blog post.

What would be your first rule of Pitch Club?

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For dramatic effect in this post I’m going to say that there have been two attitudinal moments of truth in my career to date.

The first was learning and embracing the art of delegation.

The second was dropping the lead agency mentality that had been instilled in me after 18 years in advertising agencies.

These were both instances of a leopard actually being able to change its spots.

Big deals.

Delegation first.

There are drawbacks to being a perfectionist, as I learned the hard way.

To the old adage, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”, I rather arrogantly added the unspoken mantra, “If a job’s worth doing perfectly, do it yourself.”

Up to a point that attitude is a ticket to career progression in account management.

Up to a point.

It’s also a ticket to 60 hour working weeks.

So, up to a point, it’s a stressful but sustainable approach.

But after a point it’s an attitude that actually serves to impede career development.

Promotion brings with it added responsibility. Responsibility for more work and more people.

You get promoted on the basis of consistently delivering work of a high standard. And the expectation is that those standards will be maintained across an expanded workload.

And, all of a sudden, the DIY perfectionist attitude is no longer sustainable.

The bottom line is that an ambitious perfectionist has to learn to delegate whether he likes it or not.

I’ll admit that placing trust in others and devoting a significant proportion of my time to developing people rather than doing stuff didn’t come as naturally to me as it does to others.

But I did learn quickly.

And I was soon delegating with the zeal of the recently converted.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

So, if you want to get ahead you have to be adaptable. You have to be able to drop deeply ingrained but counter-productive attitudes in favour of counter-intuitive but ultimately profitable alternatives.

Which brings me onto that lead agency mentality thing.

Firstly I should point out that there’s a difference between lead agency status and lead agency mentality.

And secondly that lead agency status is a good thing unless it brings with it a certain type of lead agency mentality. More on which shortly.

Clients want two things from their lead agency.

They want powerful, engaging, high-concept ideas and communication platforms.

And they want close collaboration with other agencies to fully realise the potential of those ideas across all channels.

Lead agency status means that you get the high-concept briefs and the retainer fees that go with them.

But a lead agency mentality seriously impedes the lead agency’s ability to deliver on the second part of the client’s wishlist; collaboration.

Carrying a lead agency mentality and not delegating effectively have a lot in common.

Both infer an insidious arrogance on the part of the attitude holder. And both act as an anchor to progress.

At my current (digital) agency, we sometimes enjoy lead status and we sometimes play a collaborative role with 3rd party lead agencies and other disciplines.

Whereas I spent my time in advertising working exclusively on a “lead” basis.

Much has been written about how ad agencies need to adapt to retain their traditional lead status in a digital world. And a lot of that writing focuses on the additional skills required.

But I think the new attitudes required are just as important.

I have learned a massive amount in the last two years. But the biggest revelation has been the open, generous, naturally collaborative attitude of digital natives.

And the lead agency mentality of some ad agencies is in stark contrast to this generous spirit.

Picture the over-competitive kid in the classroom hiding their work with their arm to prevent anyone from copying. Probably not the most popular kid in class, but a reasonable analogy for lead agency mentality.

I’ve watched with interest of late client reactions to lead agency mentality from their lead agencies.

More and more clients are using all-agency, cross-discipline meetings as a means to manage projects.

Some of these are exemplar cases of how to collaborate to maximise the return on an idea. They include excellent lead agencies who don’t bring any counter-productive attitudinal baggage with them.

And some are pretty far from exemplary if truth be told.

And it pisses clients off.

Why the agencies concerned can’t tell that they’re pissing the client off is beyond me. But I’m sufficiently long in the tooth to know that I’m reading the signs correctly.

“Getting” digital isn’t just about staying on top of emerging technologies. It’s about displaying the open, generous nature without which many of those technologies would never come to fruition.

The less than exemplary lead agencies need a moment of truth. The penny needs to drop re. their lead agency mentality as it did for me with delegation.

They too have to be able to drop deeply ingrained but counter-productive attitudes in favour of counter-intuitive but ultimately profitable alternatives.

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