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November 16, 2009
Three (or More) is a Crowd

Clients love to mix things up in the ad biz. More and more, clients are awarding their business to more than one shop. There’s nothing new about it. It works like this: they give one piece of business, say TV, radio and (what’s left of) print, to one agency. And then they give another piece of the business, say all things digital, to another. Just maybe, anything else – direct mail, collateral, a wall calendar with cute kittens on it, goes to a third. In the client’s minds, they’ve established a team of “partner agencies” that are ready to take orders from the mighty client. And the client can choose from a deep pool of ideas as each agency competes for a bigger piece of the business. Competition. Good for everyone, right?

Not really. “Partner agencies”, in front of the client, will pretend to play nice with each other, like two kids whose Moms are friends and are on a “forced playdate.” But in reality each agency has no greater wish than to launch the other “partner agencies” in a rocket toward the sun. Or moon. Or whatever celestial object would ensure an immediate kablooey. I think that’s the scientific term. In other words, agencies hate having to share the toys in the client sandbox. Because in the end, only one idea will win. That means one agency will get credit for “the big idea.” The rest will be just taking orders. Happens all the time to agencies big and small. I’ve been on both sides, and I’ve seen it again and again. And no one is happy.

With the merging of advertising mediums, things are only going to get nastier. Any agency that produces TV can produce web video, and vice versa. It’s not that big of a jump creatively, no matter what any agency will say. Banner advertising has turned into Print 2.0. That means any creative who worked in print or outdoor or any kind of passive medium and said, “wouldn’t it be cool if things moved and we had sound,” now has that option. And you can bet that every agency assigned to a piece of business is pitching social media ideas and mobile phone apps – because neither big nor small agencies have a lock on either of those segments.

So in a group of “partner agencies,” it’s likely that there will be more competition for the same piece of business whether they are assigned to it or not. Will the best idea win? Maybe. It deserves to. Will every agency play nice in the spirit of professionalism? Doubtful.

When a client brings in a second agency into its world as a “creative consultant” or even for just one assignment, that should sound alarm bells for the first agency. It’s either going to be a passing love affair or the beginning of the end. Incumbent agencies are generally helpless at this point – although they should probably do what they can to improve the quality of the work. Time, and results, will tell if Agency No. 2 (or 3) will stick around or send Agency No. 1 packing.

I wish I could come up with some “let’s all be friends” kind of conclusion. But in business, there are winners and there are losers. We don’t all get a trophy for showing up. The one-client, multiple-agency set up will most likely always be with us. It’s not unethical or wrong. It just is what it is. Just know that when a client starts playing the field, the whole game changes.

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Brad Mislow is a New York-based ACD in both traditional and digital media. He has worked on Citibank, Toyota, AT&T, Mercedes-Benz, the U.S. Army, American Express, Hershey Foods, Unilever, DHL, Kraft Foods, Kodak, Amtrak, Miller Lite, and Post Cereals. For a look at his work and more articles like this one, go to bradmislow.com.

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