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August 4, 2016
When Firing an Agency is a Chickens--t Move
Should marketers expect customer loyalty while not showing any for their agencies?
With both personal and professional interest, I was fascinated by restaurant chain Chick-fil-A’s recent decision to fire The Richards Group, its ad agency of 22 years. While the brand has been a mostly regional one, only recently expanding nationally, it’s one I’m quite familiar with having grown up in its hometown.
The brand had been using a “talking cows” campaign that’s been around for many, many years — ancient by advertising standards. The cows campaign isn’t edgy. Or provocative. But that’s OK; Chick-fil-A isn’t an edgy brand, yet they’ve managed to build a huge, devoted customer base. And through it all, The Richards Group’s work helped fuel the chain’s growth.
But in an all-too-familiar scenario, the new CMO (new to the position but not new to the company) dumped The Richards Group, looking for a change.
So why fire an agency after 22 years? Are some longtime client-agency relationships simply irreparable? Do CMOs believe in any sort of loyalty anymore?
I don’t have any insight into why The Richards Group was fired. Did they adamantly refuse to evolve the current campaign? Did they oppose trying something new at the risk of losing the account? Did 22 years of daily account maintenance make them set in their ways and render them incapable of changing? It seems unlikely, but it’s possible.
There was a new agency hired, and a third agency who created an interim ad campaign — which frankly, is a generic, forgettable effort that bears no resemblance to anything currently known or widely understood about the brand and its customers.
Of course, there’s nothing automatically wrong with a client-agency divorce after 22 years. Sometimes, marketers just have the itch to get some strange. But brands (and their CMOs) that have no loyalty to successful partnerships don’t always know what led to that success in the first place. And while their big, splashy, beginning-of-job account changes make news in Adweek or Ad Age, their follow-up failures rarely make the headlines.
It’s also true that no newly hired agency ever wants to use the leftover campaign elements of the last shop. But starting all over again can lead to either a fresh perspective or a complete misreading of the client’s business and customer base. There’s a reason why many ad people spend their careers working on one category — in car advertising circles they’re called “gearheads.” They know the particular client category, the major and minor business players, the marketing rules worth breaking and the ones that shouldn’t be broken.
One of the best clients I ever had was one of those people. She knew the restaurant business in and out, and was savvy enough to consult with several chains at the same time — ones with widely different menu concepts. She trusted us to deliver great creative, and we trusted her to know her stuff.
Still, expertise honed from years of learning one vertical category isn’t always deemed valuable, or sexy. In every art form, there are the rule breakers, envelope pushers and auteurs who always march to a different beat. And in advertising, particularly on the creative side, those types of “rebels” are the ones we tend we tend to celebrate. They’ll take a client and look at it from an entirely new angle just for the hell of it — whether it’s right for the brand or not.
But seeing Chick-fil-A fly the coop and try a radically different marketing approach is an eye-opener. Clients who don’t show loyalty to their marketing partners shouldn’t be surprised to discover that consumers have no love or loyalty for their products and services. That’s not to say that Chick-fil-A will soon find their business in a downturn. They may, however, stray from the very brand ethos that made it so loved by its customers. Once that love is lost, it’s hard to get back.
Very simply put, 22 years of built-up knowledge on a client’s business is now gone. And the Richards Group can apply their understanding of the fast-food (I mean, “quick service restaurant”) business to one of Chick-fil-A’s competitors.
Yes, it’s been this way in the ad industry for decades. But a long-term partnership, rare as it is, is still worth examining and celebrating. Most agencies would love a relationship like the one The Richards Group had with Chick-fil-A. Unfortunately, most agencies have been reduced to vendor status with no guarantee they’ll have an account next month, let alone for years.
Which is why, too often, we accede to every client request by responding, “Would you like fries with that?”

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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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