Don Draper

Your Existing Agency Relationship is Terrible — Here’s Why

Oh the creative agency/digital agency/advertising agency … the place where Mad Men wannabes reside and the likelihood for cocktails at lunch is just part of the business. The place where self-important, high-flying, egomaniacs are valued based on how much more self-important and high-flying they can be.

Thankfully, I’ve watched the ground swell build for years on the hate for this group. I’ve heard the clients as they’ve quietly thought to themselves, ‘hey, are you guys doing any of the stuff we pay you to do?’

So, as someone who has seen both sides of the coin (good, lean agencies and bad, bureaucratic agencies), I thought it would be beneficial to give some insight into why your relationship with the agency you hired rarely ever turns out the way you thought it would.

I hope you’re listening, Draper.

Go on …

Watered-Down Talent

Most consultancies are selling the time of their people more than anything else. Consultancies are selling the intellectual property that the team carries in their mind of the project they worked on for another gold star corporation along with the talent (design skills, development chops, etc.) of their leaders. For any consultancy, the pitch team comes in, carrying their fancy titles and their decades of experience to close the deal and then, in some instances, … they vanish.

Frequently, from the minute the piece of business is closed until the next time the agency needs money, you won’t see that senior person. Don’t feel bad; none of their other clients see that person between contract dates either.

Ultimately, what ends up happening is your piece of business gets passed down the chain of command and lands in the hands of junior level people who are charged with creating this thing the agency leaders sold you.

Those day-to-day task rabbits are trying to learn how to do the thing the leader told you they could do and there are tremendous holes in the line of communication between your meeting, your need and the team who is actually doing the work.

The reason this happens? There was a period of time where consultancies were judged only on their headcount. The theory of more people equals better work was perpetuated by the egomaniacs running the consultancies in a constant battle to one-up their friends.

The result: the talent you get isn’t the best and doesn’t carry much experience.

Bureaucracy Kills Communication

Peas, fleas?

The watered-down talent is a challenge of massive proportions but add on to that the issue of playing that children’s game ‘telephone’ and a slew of new issues come up. Often times, the levels in place between the solution architect and the operational folks are so substantial that the real things you paid for (intellectual property, solution architecting and talent) are entirely lost and you end up explaining to your agency what their agency recommended to you!

The Five Whys

Along this communication vein, the challenge of consistent and accurate communication between the two organizations and within each organization is ever expanding. The Five Whys, the popular business theory developed by Toyota Motor Company (a former employer of mine), is tremendously valuable and often forgotten about down the food chain to the operations and implementation teams. If you’re lucky, your solution architect has used some version of this to get to the real business problem and has developed a solution to that problem, but not always. Either way, because of this break down in communication, the day-to-day teams have never understood the problem fully so they can’t ever truly develop a top-tier solution to that problem.

No Business Case

The pile-on problem with that is that the junior-level people don’t have a good handle on the business case to do the project in the first place. Additionally, they don’t even understand the business as an entity on its own. There are a ton of junior-level agency folks who can’t take off their end-consumer hat and put on their corporate marketer hat to understand that everything they do isn’t for the end consumer. The junior-level agency folks often haven’t even considered the other wildly important audiences like investors, employees, job candidates and public policy drivers so their value to your business is mediocre at best.

So many agencies have designers who say ‘I’m a designer, I design things.’ Real consultancies have designers who say ‘I’m a designer, I improve business results.’ The people who think the (fill-in-the-blank) corporate entity creates marketing materials and sales tools only for end customers needs to be stopped! The creative talent with no business acumen needs to consider another career path.

I met someone at an event recently who runs a portion of a marketing department for a local university. We ended up talking about the digital marketing consultant who was just in pitching her on digital ad spend talking about needing to have ad copy that offered discounts on tuition at the university. Terrible! A college education is not like sneakers.

Waterfall Methodology

And, the biggest reason that your agency relationship is awful is that they approach everything in a Waterfall manner. The agency has tremendous overhead, weak culture and a transient workforce that causes the firm to careen toward these massive, long-term projects that go deep into RFP land, have novel-size statements of work, huge budgets attached, 394085 stakeholders involved and a beginning, middle and end to the project. In every scenario, there are huge sums of money that are exchanged for a project with only two possible results occurring: Pass or Fail.

Much of the time, this Pass/Fail model works because the agency can manage the communication challenges of a bureaucracy, keep the talented people involved and drive positive change for their clients. But, this structure often results in massive failure through missed expectations, missed business results and an overall poor experience for the client with their agency.

This Sucks, How Do I Get Away from These Awful Agencies

Anyone who has been paying attention the last few years knows that Corporate America has been beaten up by the orthogonal competitor (look it up, kudos to the keynote I sat through a month ago that gave me that word). A strong business case, tremendous talent and speed are the only way to grab market, win the day and stay ahead. While the bureaucracies come tumbling down in large enterprises, it’s important to remember that the same bureaucracy you hate in your own organization shouldn’t be hoped for in your agency partner.

The recommendation? Try your own version of the Five Whys when you’re assessing your agency partner on a project you have. The best agency might not have all the answers you want, but they will take the time to learn your business, ask the right questions and find the answers, it is after all what good business partners do.

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