Agency process is a balancing act. Too little process, and an agency will eventually fail to deliver and will go broke in the process. Too much process and it kills the creativity of the organization.

Having recently been a fly on the wall during client-led agency reviews, it is easy to spot the winners and losers. The winning agencies tend to lightly dance with their process, intermingling it with their work as evidence that the outcomes were not pure luck.

The losers spend more than half their allotted time banging on about their process, segmenting it from the outcomes and boring the client team to no end.

Good clients expect and respect strong agency process. They are not hiring agencies for their process. But if you question a client about why they are considering switching agencies, 50% of the time they cite poor process as one of the primary reasons…and also the work did not live up to expectations.

Process will not win you the work, but it sure as hell will get you fired.

An agency that over-indexes on process in a client presentation is more than likely also over-indexing on it back at the shop. Nothing will destroy an agency creative culture faster than legions of people armed with process hovering over the creative work.

Process is important. Properly executed, agency process infuses the creativity of the organization with insight, curiosity and a general esprit de corps that has everyone working to produce the best work possible.

If done poorly, agency process become a dividing line between those doing the work and those who believe it is their job to demand the work.

The highest purpose of agency process is to liberate its creativity.

Smart Brand Managers are forever scrutinizing the value they are gaining from their agencies. All too often, this value judgement lands on the desk of the chief creative officer and of course it should; but it needs to land equally on the desks of the head of strategy and the head of account service.

The ad industry has forever been trying to accurately respond to the old quip, attributed to John Wannamaker, “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Recently, Marc Pritchard of Unilever announced their “People First” initiative. As stated in CampaignLive; “a structure in which talent from roster agencies across holding groups are brought together under one roof to service the FMCG giant’s North American fabric care business.”

This is a client, a great client actually, doing everything he can to unlock value from these relationships for his brands. Multiple agencies, multiple brands, massive media spend, redundancy and not enough of a payoff; or at least that’s what we can infer from the directive.

I don’t know Marc Pritchard, but really appreciate his efforts not to throw the baby out with the bath water. In the article he talks about bringing all the various agency creative together as a new model effort to find value by uniting the agencies in one collaborative effort.

I’ve run huge global brand development sessions with agency partners and client brand teams from all over the world. The largest initiative included participants from 16 countries. The approach can work miracles in ideation and equally important in getting everyone on the same page. Getting everyone on the same page with a big brand idea requires great talent in the room, a hugely collaborative effort, and egos left behind.

Believe it or not, it is rarely the creatives who do not play well with others. The minute the big idea is agreed, it’s the agency business leads who start tearing at the budget like lions on a kill. Unless a client is willing to address the budget and compensation in an equally unilateral manner, it is very tough to make the collaboration and the outcome stick.

I’ve worked on both Unilever and P&G brands and these are smart people with massive resources and still they are struggling to realize the promised value in the age of “new media.”

These initiatives can work but to my mind, the real culprit is the industries’ addiction to its own hype. The ad industry did not invent Google, or Facebook or any of the other super creative things that are reshaping the world; all we do is figure out how to monetize these things to our advantage and now clients are finally asking; How do all these exciting pieces of content you create make me money and build my brand?  Clearly there is benefit; but how much return is in that investment?  Spending less on creative and eliminating this redundancy is helpful to a brand if all the collaboration works out; but this is a client-driven attempt to solve an industry problem. We need to get better; showing and proving our value in context of the media and not just the execution itself. Possibly one of the worst things to have happened in the advertising industry is that media was cleaved off from the agencies and became independent. It is not a matter of church and state; it is a matter of execution of ideas, and ideas cannot be separated from the media that gives voice to their expression.

Brand marks and symbols are invested with symbolism; meaning derived from perceived value, ambition and aspiration too. On this 4th of July I thought it would be interesting to start with a consideration of Uncle Sam; a representation of the U.S. Government. The creation and evolution of Uncle Sam is an interesting story about which much has been written. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction but one thing is certain, the illustration created by artist Montgomery Flagg is a hit. This rendering was used to promote the idea of being ready and prepared for war. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, there is never really an end to war and persecution and the excuses used to justify it all. Right or wrong, the symbol of Uncle Sam became a call-to-arms which found its inspiration in the 1914 Alfred Leete illustration from England used in a WW I recruitment poster.

openness, compassion

Columbia, symbol of the people of the America

Uncle Sam’s better half, known as Columbia, famously depicted by Paul Stahr ca. 1917-18, named to honor the legacy of Columbus, went on to inspire the naming of countless organization, including Columbia University as well as Columbia pictures, which later took the lovely lady as a symbol of its own. You’ll notice a strong resemblance to Lady Liberty, the grand statue itself a gift to the people of the U.S. from the people of France. The Statue was designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886.

In the painting of Columbia, we are quite literally taken in by her open arms and compassionate and sincere expression. Columbia was said to represent the people of the Americas. The Statue of Liberty holds a tablet with the Roman inscription of July 4, 1776; testament to our declaration of independence. Broken chains lay at her feet, a beacon for all the world to see, a symbol of independence and freedom at the entrance to NY Harbor. Her torch held high, welcoming immigrants from all over the world. The statue was also inspired by the Roman Goddess, Libertas.

The fabric of America

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
— Emma Lazarus

It should not be surprising that women are used to represent openness, liberty and freedom while men are depicted as aggressive, directive and controlling. We are ourselves symbols. Of course, not all women and men possess these qualities as distinct characteristics. Check out the early illustration by Thomas Nast from Harpers Weekly of Uncle Sam having Thanksgiving dinner with immigrants from all over the world, this tells the story of America at its best. The world at its best.

At a time when the U.S. and perhaps much of the rest of the world seem on a path of isolationism, it would do us good to remember the power of symbols and icons as representations of our beliefs.

The U.S. welcomes immigrants from all over the world

Uncle Sam, having dinner with immigrants

America’s most important and invaluable export is our culture. For centuries, America and the promise of America has inspired countless millions to risk it all in pursuit of freedom, openness and inclusiveness. We seem to be forgetting, the meaning of America, of liberte’.

What will you export today? Perhaps you can start with a welcoming smile.

Start your day smiley

The originally smiley face, created by graphic artist Harvey Ball made legend by millions of buttons and now emoji too

Yes, we’re talking production. Clients want you to produce work. This is, after all, what they hire us for; Is it not?

Yes, you say, with great affirmation.

Wrong.

What clients hire us for, what they really hire us to produce, are results. The work is a means to an end and that ultimate end result is sales. Not awareness in and of itself, not leads, although these are steps along the path, not likes or clicks, but actual hard-boiled sales, measured in ounces of gold.

Advertising to sales ratios are one measure clients use to determine how much of their advertising budget goes into each sale. Some clients, depending on the nature of their product or service, might look at lifetime value of a customer, assuming the product or service involves repeat purchase. For instance, your wireless phone service vs a dog leash.

The wireless service may spend hundreds of dollars closing you as a customer knowing for sure that once they have you, they will have you for a good many years, so the initial cost of sale is amortized over the life of your engagement.

The dog leash people, on the other hand, cannot afford to spend any more than a few bucks to achieve your purchase of their product. And it’s a product you will likely have a lot longer than your wireless carrier. Or at least as long as you have your dog.

If you don’t understand your client’s business, you cannot produce effective results. It’s pretty simple. If you don’t understand the perceived value in the mind of the target customer, you will not achieve effective results.

Brand value is derived from consumer need based on real insight into their emotional relationship with the brand. This emotional relationship is expressed in the brand idea.

Getting it right triggers deep connections that make the cash register ring; and that my friends is what they pay us for.

Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot…your brand story.

It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. I’m advocating for a conscious return of what I feel is a progressive loss to the level of craft in commercial content production.

The art of your brand story is one part and the art of the production of your brand story is the other. Thanks to the internet, there exists an insatiable desire for content. And thanks to the democratization of the technologies of content creation, everyone with a camera and a zoom recorder is suddenly a producer or director or director of photography or all of the above. Yikes.

Potential clients call Brandforming and ask us for an assessment of why their content is not delivering the anticipated results. They invested in, yada, yada, yada…

There is a lot of crappy content on the web; I hope it’s not yours.

Just because you can produce content with your smart phone does not mean you should. Just because you can fry an egg on your car engine does not mean you should. If Annie Leibovitz takes your portrait with a smart phone, it will be an amazing story of you. If Martin Scorsese wants to make a cinematic production with a DSLR, it’ll be an amazing tale. If Bobby Flay decides to cook you brunch on the engine of his SUV, it’ll be one of the best meals of your life.

The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is the point. Great gear in the right hands has the potential to make a great story or idea that much stronger in execution. But in and of itself it is an empty shell.

This does not mean you shouldn’t create and produce. It means if you don’t have the skills, you need to practice and hone the craft before you degrade your brand with crappy content. And the first skill you need to master is the story. If you don’t have the skills in-house, then hire the right people. All the tech expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.

Most production companies are not built like marketing agencies; most of them are built for episodic engagements, not brand stewardship. Building and safeguarding your brand story takes a long-term view, it takes insight and planning and strategy and great creative ideas, smartly executed. This is the work of brand agencies.

Today there is a profusion of production companies that have technical skill because the technology has made it much easier to look and sound good, but that does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make the cost to your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost is significant. Vacuous content.

Content without brand strategy is death by a thousand cuts.

Really good agencies know this, and really good clients know this too. And really good production companies know this and expect to partner with brand agencies. A great commercial director wants to understand your brand and its audience.  This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea with the correct intention.

This is the work of producing content; to tell your brand idea, and it is why brand agencies employ creative directors, writers, art directors, strategists and producers, to define your brand idea.  And then, shot by shot, adding and building, intention upon intention, the entire production design is aligned with the purpose of your brand.

This is the craft.

The problem with no, the real problem, is that it’s not yes. Turning no into yes is often a cat and mouse game with the marketing team. You might have 10 clients on a single brand with a claim to input and by the time you’re done, your big idea might not be so big any longer and your enthusiasm may certainly have waned… but your idea finally gets moved upstairs with the warm endorsement of a semi-aligned brand team. Sound familiar?

If this is a regular routine and when you look yourself in the mirror and with absolutely no self-aggrandizing bullshit you can say, without equivocation, that this is your best work and that the big idea for the brand has been pillaged to death by no, you’ve enter the club of no authority.

The club of no authority, wields the only axe they are authorized to carry; no.

Have you noticed? The decision making around big ideas by marketing teams is sadly, often a chess match of realpolitik in the face of the true authority upstairs.

They cannot give you a yes, because yes is not in the room.

When the idea finally climbs the last flight of stairs and enters the corner office, it may not get that yes because it’s been watered down and the corner office thinks and behaves differently. The corner office is not worried about the corner office. The corner office wants the big idea to be truly big and liberating. The corner office wants your expertise above all else.

This is your moment.

Do everything in your power to be in that room and have your original iteration of the idea at hand. If the idea starts to take a dive offer the alternative solution, one of your originals.

If it achieves yes, immediately give credit to the marketing team for pushing you to no end.

If it all falls flat, accept responsibility and start asking a lot of questions, get the corner office in on the dialogue. Show your humility in the face of their expertise, work to an insight, listen intently, walk out armed, tell them you’ll be back in 48 hours, ready to deliver a yes.

All client companies have their rules of engagement and most of the time you will be bound by these rules and the culture that defines them. Work towards a presentation plan with your client team, they will appreciate this effort more than you realize. After all, yes benefits everyone.

The past nine months have been an exercise in constraint. Adding the role of The F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration at Skidmore College to my life’s work has taken some adjustment. All positive. This work will be the subject of its own blog post because it deserves the airtime.

Here at Brandforming, we’ve been aggressively moving the nature and scope of our engagements to be primarily defined by brand idea and strategy development. With a few exceptions, we’ve dialed down on tactical execution.

We’ve enjoyed some very nice engagements that have resulted in perspective-shifting, business-altering ideas for our clients. This is enormously satisfying as we’ve significantly and positively impacted the businesses of our clients. It has also allowed us to engage effectively and precisely with these clients, giving them the attention they deserve while I work at the very serious and seriously gratifying job of being a Professor.

There have been some interesting knock-on effects of this constraint. We prepare and execute a very thorough engagement for our clients and send them off with a simple, powerful brand idea. They move forward happy and excited. Nice. As of this writing, a full 75% of these clients are returning to us with additional work.

The reality is that they are returning because they do not feel the idea is being fully realized. Why? As we re-engage it becomes clear that the client has gotten bogged down in execution. Bogged down, often with their own internal constraints, often in conjunction with the failure of the client-agency relationship. And in two instances the client’s AOR did not fully deliver on the power and potential of the idea despite everyone getting along just swimmingly.

Of course, we are always delighted when the phone rings again with clients seeking our council because they trust the work we’ve done together. On the other hand, we would be equally happy to see the ideas take flight without the need for us to re-engage. Our shift in scope forgives us most of the burden of these misfires. Still, we are upset by the sounds of frustration on the other end of the phone. And because we know that being an AOR is often a compromised existence, we do everything in our capability to help re-focus and re-energize these relationships.

Execution is no little thing and it is often the first thing that gets compromised. We are working in an age of such downward price pressure that many agencies are struggling to survive. The evidence is all around us: talent flight, collapsing margins, and bad media. Clients need to invest in execution and the most important part of this investment is in a partner that can make things happen without a lot of wasted effort. Big ideas don’t always need to cost a fortune to execute, but they must always be smartly — effectively and efficiently — rendered.

Occasionally, rummaging through the back of the drawer turns up a gem. In this case, a merger pencil.  To me the no.3 lead was always the perfect choice, especially during a merger or IPO; no.2 was always a bit too soft for my taste. This was the mighty tool, long before we had computers on every desk. This, a blank sheet of paper and a cup of coffee was the ideal way to start any project. It still is a superior set of tools.

This post isn’t really about the pencil but rather the merger stamped across the surface. I have lived and worked through a number of mergers and IPO’s in my agency life and at this point, I can say with some degree of confidence that they are events that do little to elevate or even maintain the level and quality of the work. In fact, with rare exception, it is quite the opposite.

In the near term these events also do very little to help most of the agency client base, save perhaps the largest. In the long run, many years down the road organizations like Wire and Plastic Products have turned up as a global agency juggernaut, best known as WPP.  Sir Martin sure knows what he’s doing in this regard.  Before building WPP into one of the world’s top agency networks he was finance director of Saatchi & Saatchi  — see the merger pencil above. The team at WPP seem to have it all worked out, not so for the failed Publicis-Omnicom courtship. Was the proposed merger love only at first bite?

What’s working brilliantly for WPP did not turn out so well at the time for Saatchi & Saatchi. As the go- go 80’s imploded there was all kinds of intrigue and mayhem and loss of business as the operation began to unravel. Yet, it was fabulous to be there because at the time, it was the place to be…until it wasn’t. I should note that for many years now Saatchi & Saatchi is back on high ground and has been knocking out some great work, but it was a long road back.

Mergers and IPO’s for large agency groups comes down to winners and losers. All the bather about a “merging of equals” or how being a publicly traded company will not change the culture are fantasies of good will. And how it will not mean a loss of jobs or impact clients — good intention perhaps, but not reality. Too many moving parts to manage effectively. A familiar scene across many industries.

On the rare occasion, when it works, it works because the dominant agency is a top-ranked creative powerhouse and that is the driving culture. The executive team is identified and the agenda is supported and maintained throughout the process, across the entire new organization with no excuses and with respect all around.  The goal is to deliver the same great product across the globe as well as around the block. A rising tide lifts all boats.

When it doesn’t work, it’s because the merger or IPO is an exercise in financial control designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This unleashes all kinds of grief and stress because this agenda does not always align well with doing what’s best and right for your clients and their brands.

When it works you see little turnover of talent and business. When it doesn’t, you see years of management change, talent flight and loss of accounts.

On the occasion of the pencil seen above, Saatchi & Saatchi Dorland was the UK based network agency and Saatchi & Saatchi Compton was the US arm. They merged DFS and Dorland to create DFS-Dorland which existed for a fairly brief period before they combined all of us into my very special Yellow no.3 pencil. I save these pencils as Momento mori, small monuments to help remember that even the best of hard work and talent can be defeated by the ephemeral trappings of seeking scale for the sake of scale, rather than in service of your agency product.

As for my collection of pencils, I keep them at hand because putting ideas to paper remains essential regardless of the names changing over the door. Which reminds me, I need to order up some no.3’s for Brandforming.