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.
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.
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.
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.