The air was blue with my rants as I discovered my site had been hacked. The blog section filled with spammy, fraudulent posts — from the bizarre to the disgusting.
I removed all the bad posts and changed my login credentials, only to discover a few weeks later they were back in my site. How? I’m still not sure, but to shake them off, we took down the site, moved hosting locations and updated all security protocols. Apologies if you were affronted.
It’s not the first time, perhaps it’s also happened to you. Entirely disruptive. It’s hard not to get angry about it. The last time this happened was years ago and I really was furious. This time, more annoyance than anger. I was traveling and enjoying a few days in NYC and took the opportunity to not let it bother me too much. Instead, I took a break from everything and considered the value in the effort of writing blog posts.
It will be nice one day if I can directly link the effort to incoming work…but after some thought, to be honest, I’m doing it for myself. I enjoy it.
Maybe you’ll enjoy one or more of my posts and find them of value, maybe not.
I send them with love in either case.
Disrupting your creative team is a detriment to their productivity. You may not want to believe it, but it’s true. The agency ecosystem is rife with meetings, some days are spent almost entirely in meetings. Meetings are not the only black hole. There are the armies of account service personnel, project managers and producers who pop in and ask; Got a minute?
It’s rarely a minute and when you add them all up, along with the frequency, you end up with a creative team that is utterly distracted and not able to focus on the ideas.
It’s true that it is essential that the creative team be kept in the loop, but it is equally essential that they be left alone. No fly zones need to be created, respected, and enforced.
When developing creative ideas, it is not only important to generate lots of ideas, but also just as important to separate the wheat from the chaff and this takes time and hard thinking. Analyzing an idea from multiple directions, turning it over, mulling it, challenging its integrity, finding the weak spots, and shoring them up if possible, or relegating it to the dust bin is serious work.
Every interruption that pulls minds from creative thought is a derailment of progress. This is not just my opinion; it has been well studied. The constant interruptions are one reason creative teams tend to work late into the night, it is one of the rare moments when there is peace in the house.
Protected thinking time does not automatically trigger clever work, but it does mean that you understand and respect the process. Creative workers who feel their time is respected will work more effectively and will work even harder to solve the day’s challenge.
According to American labor leaders and pioneers, Labor Day celebrates the everyday men and women who work to create “all the grandeur we behold.”
Created as a holiday to celebrate the laboring classes, it honors workers and workers’ rights, like paid sick days, 40-hour workweek and fair working conditions, as well as their contributions to “America’s strength, prosperity and well-being.” GH
I wonder how the founders of the labor movement would react to the working hours of agency labor?
It’s a business that knows no bounds when it comes to encroaching on quality of life.
But if you love it, well, such is your life; a labor of love.
As a business owner, leader or manager in a creative enterprise, utilization of labor is an invaluable tool in accounting the efficiency and financial success of a business. Or is it?
Utilization in the commercial creative world is a problematic measurement because try as we might to straight-line the process, it is anything but. To the uninitiated staring at a utilization report, it will appear as if efficiency gains should be easy to achieve. Sometimes it really is that easy. Most of the time it’s not.
While some jobs are task-based and easier to measure, those roles involved in generating strategy and creative work are extremely hard to pin down because creating great work is rarely straight-line. The hours involved are never truly captured and as a result, a false economy is at work.
Utilization in this context is a blunt instrument and should not be the sole arbiter of performance. Sadly, it has become the hammer that pounds the nails.
There are two ways to maximize utilization: produce and sell work of such value that you never want for a client or sell the full utilization of your services by taking on just about any work at all. Commercial creative organizations immediately step on a slippery slope when they start taking on work to fill utilization.
This often happens with a strong sense of benevolence and desire to keep people employed in the face of a downturn in business. Fair enough, but it’s a short-money game that undermines the future of the enterprise if not kept in check.
Because clients are willing to pay only so much for work, it’s a rare day when all the hours involved are actually paid in full. Often, they are not even recorded. Agency personnel learn quickly that they need to bring the work in on estimate.
The estimate is a negotiation of value between the client and agency. Thus, utilization is an attempt to quantify efficiency relative to the agreed value. It’s also, too often, a denial of real cost.
Utilization reports that appear to show capacity are sometimes pure fiction that suggest more capacity than actually exists. In fact, most agency staffers are entirely overworked and underperforming because they lack adequate time to recharge.
Management often turns a blind eye to unbilled hours knowing that if they report these hours, their superiors will be forced to confront the client or open a Pandora’s box of internal issues.
Maybe the project is over hours because the fee was negotiated incorrectly, the client is a hot mess, or the agency cannot get out of its own way. Regardless of the cause, it’s a rare client who will agree to pay more.
The true cost: talent flight and the long-term viability of the enterprise.
Now, let’s go utilize our beach chairs and put our feet up on this, the 140th anniversary of Labor Day, and celebrate some well-deserved rest.
It was the second meeting. The first was a year ago. The client asked for the second meeting to discuss an update to their business challenges. The first meeting seemed to go well. The indications were positive.
During the first credentials meeting, the client was highly engaged, asked tough questions, agreed vigorously with the answers. They seemed sincere when they stated their intentions to move ahead. Over a period of weeks, a scope of work was defined and agreed. Timing was agreed. Before the engagement could begin in earnest, there were things the client needed to sort internally first. We stayed in touch. It’s not unusual.
The sorting took time. At the second meeting, it became clear that not only did the client agree with many of the ideas put forward in the initial scope, but they also implemented some of them. There were struggles of course. They realized they needed more specialized talent. Some of the internal sorting and prioritization of business challenges remain. Regardless, they’re ready to commit. Handshakes all around. Let’s get started. We dig in and start brainstorming.
During the meeting, an accounting was made of effort against the prior year’s scope. They had made little progress. Certain aspects of their business and the competitive landscape had shifted. Their business is a highly profitable emerging industry, extremely competitive with little differentiation in brands. The opportunity is ripe.
A stack of empty coffee cups indicated we’d been at it for hours when we arrived at a new plan. During this meeting, we employed proprietary methods and worked out preliminary strategies to their top challenges. At the client’s request, we agreed we would send over our strategy and planning slides the next day, including the scope of work and timing we just outlined.
We shook hands and said our goodbyes. We followed up the next day as requested.
The client for their part did not return a single call or email. Crickets. Ghosted.
Clients milking agencies for ideas free of charge is nothing new. The new business model, be it pitching ideas based on a client supplied brief, written RFP, credentials presentation or some combination thereof, has corrupted the industry over many decades. Agencies put forth tons of time and effort and expense to demonstrate their skills with little to no comparative investment required by the client. The bigger the client, the bigger the investment, the bigger the risk.
There was a period when budgets were large enough and the cost of delivery manageable enough that, while painfully unfair, the winning agency had a chance of doing great work and making a decent profit too, even after absorbing new business costs. These days, the margins are razor thin, the cost of delivery extraordinary.
The agency world needs a contemporary model of new business engagement, one that respects both parties equally. It has been my experience that while procurement can do an amazing job of minimizing some of the risk of the agency selection process, in some cases, they have elevated the take.
Let me explain: A group of say 6-7 agencies are asked to respond in writing to an RFP. This is an extraordinary amount of work. It takes countless staff hours to do effectively. From the written submissions, a passel of agencies, say 4-5, is selected to come in and give a credential presentation. This is also a heavy lift and not something you just pull out of the drawer. Finally, a subset of the group, say 3, is then asked to make the final pitch. This is a scorching amount of work. The total time invested across all agencies is almost incalculable.
It’s nothing for agency costs to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it all happen. By the time an agency is selected, the client is in possession of extraordinary amounts of work and critical, creative thinking from the best minds in the business. All for the cost of lunch and perhaps travel accommodation.
Clients should expect to pay for this work. Period. At a bare minimum, the agencies not selected should be compensated commensurate with their time and effort for each phase.
This would improve the agency selection process for both parties. The agencies will recognize value from their efforts. In recognizing the value, clients will engage more proactively in the process. And in the taking the work will have paid, at least nominally, for the all the ideas now informing their thinking.
That’s an outcome that offers a margin of comfort for everyone involved.
Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot.
It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. There is a rash of technique over substance. We need a conscious return to the craft of story in the creation and execution of brand ideas.
The art of the story must be paramount to the art of the production. 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.
Content is delegitimizing advertising.
The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is one of the prime ingredients in the craft. In the right hands, the appropriate gear has the potential to make a great story that much stronger in execution. In and of itself, all the gear in the world will not make a better story. Flying cameras, movement for the sake of movement, outrageous POV shots are often senseless and usually add expense. If not integral to the telling, these production hijinks are significant distractions from your brand idea. In a very real sense these distractions cost you twice. The essential skills of blocking in support of the scene, lighting supports the performance and rehearsing action that will deliver the intended emotion seem to be a lost art in the world of brand content.
All the technical expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.
Most production companies are not built like agencies; most 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. Technical skill does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost may be significant.
Insight driven strategy liberates creativity.
Really good agencies know this, and really good clients know this too. 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 and she wants to partner with your agency. This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea in the most compelling way.
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 in partnership with the director working to a clear idea, shot by shot, adding and building scenes, intention upon intention, the entire production is aligned with the purpose of your brand.
This is the craft of vocal pictures.
Part of my work at Skidmore College as the F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration includes the recruitment and production of an annual lecture.
Each year, a speaker is recruited and asked to present to the students a topic within their areas of interest and expertise. This year, it was me.
The link to the lecture: https://vimeo.com/557756796
If you’re working in the industry, it’s important to keep in mind that the audience for this presentation are students. The age range is 18-22. Their context as young adults is a world in which they have never known anything other than digital media and social media. To draw out the importance of this context, I will point out here that as part of the boomer generation I grew up with TV. I never knew a world without TV. My parents, part of the silent generation, grew up with radio; TV for them was a transformative technology. For my generation, digital has been a transformative technology. For these students, generation Z, digital is nothing new at all. However, their challenge is gaining some perspective, not simply on the past but also about where we are today and, if I did a decent job, suggestions to motivate their own work and understanding going forward.
This is academic work and is shared here in that context for that purpose. The work used to illustrate the presentation were derived from various sources, most of it my own, some of it sourced from various on-line resources available to the public. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this lecture was delivered virtually.
I hope you find it insightful.
Ken Zane’s show Art Buyer For Hire is about 45 minutes in length. During the show we touch on a range of topics from idea development, to execution and agency culture too. While I was chief creative officer of Palio I hired Ken in the role of art buyer-producer. It was an important moment for both of us as it signaled a new level of growth for the agency and another chapter in Ken’s amazing career.
The title of Art Buyer is a bit of a misnomer, the role is really about identifying and collaborating with talented artists.
Even this description falls far short of the many facets of the role. Building meaningful relationships with the artists as well as the agency internal team is essential to the task. Being a good people person is a requirement, as is being a strong listener and excellent communicator. Helping both parties collaborate effectively is another key skill. The actual buying of the art, the terms and price are, in my view, secondary to the primary task of delivering a great agency product. Ken Zane has an amazing eye and is a talented photographer in his own right. With significant background in the arts, Ken is able to quickly bring visual reference for color, composition and style into alignment in support of the work.
In short, Ken elevates the work with unwavering support for the vision of the team.
I hope you enjoy it. Click here for the show.
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 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, they very often cite poor process as one of the primary reasons. Of course, the other big reason is the work.
Strong process will not win you the work, but poor process will sure as hell will get you fired.
An agency that over-indexes on process in a client presentation is probably 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 possible work.
If done poorly, agency process becomes 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.
The ad industry is forever 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 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 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.”
A big 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 when 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 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.
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 organizations, 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.
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. 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 symbolism.
America’s most important export is our culture. For centuries, 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.