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December 5, 2007
Outsourced Outside The Box

This holiday season, as you’re cruising the malls and big box stores for lead-free Chinese toys and child labor-free Gap clothing, let me caution you: ad jobs are getting outsourced, too.

Not all of them, and not immediately, of course. But it’s happening.

A recent article about one of the monolithic holding companies touted the benefits of workers in Costa Rica and the Ukraine dedicated to resizing and reprogramming interactive ads. I have a sneaking suspicion these offices are a little light on the Herman Miller furniture and foosball tables.

Look, it makes perfect sense—more importantly, it makes money. When something stays online for a few hours or days, does the craft and creative really matter?

Labor is one of the reasons that agencies, particularly small ones, really face the interactive disadvantage— but not for lack of labor, just lack of ability to hire the labor. I’ve met more than my share of senior management at small agencies that are completely clueless as to how to implement a major interactive initiative in a quick timeframe. While their clients are asking for microsites, banners, e-mail blasts and widgets, these agency folks barely know how to register a domain name. “Can we do it in Flash?” is the new “Can you fix that in post?”

I’m not saying that foreign outposts are incapable of doing quality work. They are. But you outsource work, you outsource responsibility. Consider this quote from an agency head in the article I mentioned earlier: "I've got more heavy-duty stuff coming down the pipeline, on a scale bigger than we would do in-house. Now I don't have to have people crunching out 300 Web pages or 50 banner ads." Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but he does have people doing the work, just not in his Manhattan high-rise. People in Costa Rica and the Ukraine are people too.

However, between America and the other side of the world, something will fall through the cracks. I imagine that anyone who has to change or resize hundreds of ads from 10,000 miles away won’t think twice about changing or cutting a visual or a headline to fit a condensed space. In other words, doing their job, and doing whatever it takes to get the work done and uploaded. Which means the meaning of an ad could be radically changed—and what that happens, particularly when it involves specific, offer-driven retail-type ads, there could be serious legal and financial consequences for errors.

But digital marketing is largely a commodity. There’s more labor-intensive work, and more volume involved, than we’ve seen in print or broadcast advertising. Clients demand it more and faster; and right now, ad agencies don’t know how to deliver it all, nor are they prepared to pay American talent for it all.

At some point, when marketers ultimately look at the efficiencies they’ve achieved with third-world interactive servants, they may decide to that the writing and the art direction doesn’t matter so much as long as they’re mashed up quickly. The best and brightest will give way to the fastest and cheapest.

If you think your job in advertising is immune to outsourcing, consider this: Many oft-quoted ad gurus are fixated on “engaging in a dialogue” with consumers. But every company already dedicates a portion of its budget to engaging its customers in a two-way dialogue. It’s called the customer service hotline. And despite its importance to customers, I leave it to you to decide where that call center might be located, and how well it works for many companies.

What can you do to make sure you’re not on the ass-end of this trend? Perhaps you can get better at the stuff that can’t be quantified in a PowerPoint deck—the client butt-kissing, face-time, relationship-building skills that some people possess. So much of this business is about who you know, not what you know.

You have to be careful, cautious, and courageous at the same time. Do something that makes you indispensable. Or help your agency provide the kind of ideas that a client would find indispensable. Don’t ask me what they are, I’m looking for some myself.

But in the end, it might not matter. If holding company honchos are determined to squeeze every dollar out of a worker, they’ll end up squeezing their workforce right off the continent. Inevitably, the work will suffer. Clients will get the marketing equivalent of lead-painted toys. And we’ll watch as our industry gets outsourced to people who don’t care if it survives or not.

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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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