Agencies want to be seen as valued partners — but it isn’t easy
These days, it seems the last thing advertising agencies want to be called are advertising agencies.
That’s not a surprise. Because every type of firm whose roots are even tangentially related to marketing is gunning for a slice of the ad pie. Lines are blurred and being crossed. It’s not enough to merely be known as an “ad agency.” Most concerning, we’ve seen traditional management consultancies like Deloitte and Accenture jump wingtips-first into the marketing and advertising business.
So can advertising agencies become more adept at competing with management consultancies? Does it require a new agency structure from the top down?
I’ve run across a few small-to-mid-sized ad agencies that say they offer consulting services. They’re hiring MBAs, placing them at a client’s office, and generating PowerPoint decks with bullet-pointed recommendations and neat infographics.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. I’ve worked full-time and freelance for all sorts of agencies — big, small, traditional, nontraditional, you name it — and I can tell you, many agencies simply aren’t prepared to match management consultancies at their own game.
Why? Because it takes more than just promising data, analytics, or strategic services. For advertising agencies and marketing firms who want to incorporate consultative services, here’s what it means:
It means a commitment to less sexy work. Life ain’t all TV commercials. Which of course, in the age of Instagram ads, landing pages and CRM-based emails, we already know. But being a consultant goes further: You’ll need to get into the nitty-gritty of things like supply chain refinements, HR processes, and customer service training. Those types of issues are what consultants often tackle. And the reason consultancies are encroaching on marketing talent is because the recommendations they make in those areas often involve a technology- and digitally-based solution — requiring things like apps, intranets, emails, training videos, etc. In other words, deliverables! Is your agency ready to recommend those? Is your creative department ready to produce them?
It means every creative needs to know about business. Consultants know how to read a balance sheet, study an org chart, and identify where improvements are needed. And how all that stacks up against a company’s competitors and the global economy. Ad agencies shortchange their people when it comes to understanding client business. Everyone working on an agency account needs to know how that client makes, or loses, money. You don’t need art directors with MBAs. But you do need to start lining up some issues of The Economist next to the CAs.
It means “That’s not our concern” becomes a concern. Lots of agencies emphasize bringing unsolicited ideas to clients. That’s good. But it takes real gumption to start thinking about problem areas of companies that are not directly related to problems advertising and marketing usually solve. Looking at a client from every angle requires a perspective most agencies aren’t currently built for.
It means the currency isn’t always awards shows. Right now in advertising agencies, credit equals cash and awards are the golden ticket to more money and better jobs. But an agency that serves as a thriving consultant to a brand won’t always bask in that kind of glory. The way our industry evaluates and compensates creative talent is not set up to reward work that flies under the radar, no matter how valuable it is to a client.
It means committing to long-term employment as well as training. Nowadays, it’s convenient for agencies to call in the freelance squad when the work ramps up. Trust me, I’ve been part of that squad. And the get-it-done and get-out model keeps overhead lower, that’s true. But truly understanding a client’s business takes months, if not years — especially if you’re talking about a corporation that does business globally. Agencies need to commit to having the staff ready to tackle this. And the staff needs to be committed to sticking around, too.
To be sure, some execs at smaller agencies can easily become consiglieres to smaller clients. Relationships can easily be developed and nurtured over years lunching at a local Chamber of Commerce.
But a lot of advertising folks want to avoid all that. The freewheeling focus on creativity and concepts, rather than a corporate approach, is what draws them to the ad business. We’re fiercely proud of our insistence on being neutral and providing an outsider’s perspective on advertising and marketing.
These days, though, management consultancies are embedding themselves in corporations and reaping the rewards. Remember, they’re only getting started building what agencies already have, and they’re willing to spend a lot of money to get there. Competing with consultancies requires us to think like them, which for many agencies is counterintuitive.
If we’re not careful, the consultancies will eat our lunch — the catered lunch they get to eat in the corporate boardroom.
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.
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