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March 15, 2018
A Closer Look at One Agency/Client Fissure
Too much work, too little trust — and that’s only the beginning
“I heard one of [BRAND’s] ads on the radio today. It was forced, stilted dialogue and I think their company and brand deserve better.”
That was, essentially, a tweet I sent to the world a while back and promptly forgot about it.
Then a few days later, their marketing director emailed me out of the blue.
“I saw your tweet about our radio ad and decided to reach out as we’re looking for some freelance help to create our future campaigns.”
The note stunned me, because most marketing directors don’t take kindly to criticism. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Could the key to winning new business be telling a brand publicly their advertising sucks?
I don’t often make my displeasure public, but nothing makes me madder than seeing (or hearing) a good brand waste their money on bad advertising. Especially in this case. The brand in question, a tech startup that operates in a very established brand category, deserved better because their service is first-rate, and I can testify to it personally.
And this brand does a lot of marketing-related things well — including the nuts and bolts of digital work like emails, search, a well-designed and comprehensive website and app. But much of the world doesn’t know who they are. They’re a bit player in the market — hence the turn towards TV and radio. (NOTE: This describes many, many businesses out there these days.)
So, naturally I wondered: Who did their current work? And why are they now trying to do it all themselves?
I spoke with the marketing director. “Well, we had an agency but it was a frustrating process,” she said. “It didn’t seem like they were listening to us, and they just wanted to win awards.”
OK, I’ve heard this one a-plenty. Having spent the bulk of my career at agencies, I’ve seen the good, bad and ugly when it comes to developing (and deteriorating) client relationships. I’ve become sympathetic to clients who don’t feel they’re getting the best work or service from agencies.
But that was only half the story.
“Our CEO, it’s kinda personal with him so he likes to be involved in the creative,” she said. OK, sometimes that’s problematic, but typical with entrepreneurs who can’t get out of their own way sometimes.
“We’d like to see what you can do with the brief we gave our previous agency.” Sure, I can beat crappy work. Not hard. Then I got the creative brief — or their version of it.
The brief bore no resemblance to a creative brief I’ve seen in working with dozens of ad agencies. No consumer insight or mindset was mentioned, just a profile of their typical customer. There was a list of benefits and a desire to squeeze several into each spot.
Oh, and they prefer to “dial test” their spots — in other words, send them out to people who sit on their laptops and indicate, second-by-second, frame-by-frame, how good the ad makes them feel about the brand. The client found that you needed to mention or display their product and benefits in the first few seconds or the ad would be deemed a failure.
Now, the story was falling into place. A brand built on precise, near-instant, quantitative digital feedback was looking for the same results in a different medium. Yet the brand, known for marketplace disruption, was turning out advertising that felt decades out of place. In other words, they got the advertising they deserved.
So was this a microcosm of bigger trends in the ad business? Certainly I got a close-up look at the rise of in-house marketing departments, the mistrust in client/agency relationships, the lack of quality ad ideas, and how tech-focused brands are trying to navigate a complex world where data can’t explain emotions.
There’s no doubt the ad industry is at a crossroads. The fissures are everywhere. Marketing professionals at many brands seem committed to disrupting everything but aren’t versed in how to create the basics of good advertising. That’s given rise to a generation of clients that don’t look favorably upon what agencies can do for them — and often, for good reason.
We’re also seeing agencies where project management (i.e., making the trains run on time) is more valuable than a hands-on account management team. Where the “deliverables” need to be delivered faster and cheaper than ever. Where the current structures aren’t always in place for the types of work clients need to thrive these days. Where profit is disappearing, with people right behind it.
A few things are true: You can say “Kendall Jenner Pepsi video” all you want but it won’t stop the tide of marketers building in-house creative capabilities. And some agencies will manage to do just fine with all these new challenges — but some won’t.
What’s also quite clear is that many brands are willing to give up on the idea of using agencies at all. Which means agencies have to continually prove they’re worthy of handling a complex marketer’s business, a deep commitment that’s not always there. You can’t regain trust that was never built in the first place.
But no matter who makes it, we should always stay focused on creating provocative, delightful, business-building work. And when it comes to bad work, try doing what I did: If you see something, say something. You might be able to get through to those brands that can’t seem to say anything.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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