The inside story on how agencies get out of shape.

The inside story on how agencies get out of shape.

Whilst the health of agencies is a live topic, the reasons why things can go wrong aren’t really being tackled by those in charge.

I’ve been fortunate to have had a ring-side seat on the subject of agency integration for the past twenty years – running direct, data and digital agencies in big communications groups. I’ve been the numbers guy in a roomful of admen; the acceptable face of what used to be BTL, in a world that used to be dominated by ATL.

In that time I’ve seen more muggings than most – income stolen from innocents, credit taken where none was due and mad decisions made by, well, Machiavellian madmen. All good entertainment: Agency Internecine Warfare Version 1.0. Jump on in, the water’s always warm.

But the serious stuff I’ve witnessed is the alarming change in how agencies, and agency groups in particular, advise their clients.  And why so many are struggling to be the trusted advisers they really, really want to be, and can’t see why they don’t have a place at the high table.

I believe there are three fundamental reasons why that’s happened.

1. It’s complicated.

It all used to be so much easier. Need to plan a launch campaign? Cunning insight from a planner led to a brand proposition that was followed slavishly into a harder-nosed acquisition campaign. The door to the data department was unlocked so they could supply the targeting (well, you couldn’t let them roam freely, could you?) and then we all sat back and waited for the post-campaign evaluation meeting to see what happened.

I may have over-simplified that a touch, but I promise you that many of the decisions were pretty binary in comparison to the myriad of options we now face. Recently, I counted 14 specialists involved in developing a client’s launch strategy: planners, creatives, content strategists, the performance marketing team, data analysts and scientists, and a wide-eyed account team trying to make sense of it all.

But the thing is that, for the most part, agencies are using the same processes they employed in that binary age to work it all through. You can’t do that now. There are so many more debates to be had. It’s rarely a linear process – you can’t just hope it all comes together. You have to understand where it can go wrong and design a planning process based on that knowledge and experience.

At Stack, we call that Risk Reduction – our way of making sense of all the insights from all of the specialists we know we need to garner, before telling our clients what to do.

2. It’s a question of where you come from.

There’s another conversation we have here frequently as a team. It’s about the unconscious bias we have all witnessed along the way whilst working within agency groups. Whether that be the dominating ad agency with hierarchical thinking in its DNA, “we need one brand idea and it’s gonna work across every channel”, or the tech team who start every sentence with the incantation that they are totally agnostic, but weirdly seems to suggest the same platform solution for every client (the one they have actually made work for someone before).

Basically, there’s still some pretty poor and misleading thinking going on. As a client, now, more than ever, I would want to know where my lead planner, or planners, herald from and how they are going to interact with all of the specialists –  agency and client side – to deliver me the best strategy.

In our agency we’ve been careful to bring together planners from a variety of disciplines; when we work together as a multidisciplinary agency group, we are seriously careful about who takes the lead strategic role on an account that will require a melting pot of specialist skills to run it successfully. We have all seen how quickly things get out of kilter if the lead planner inadvertently sets off in the wrong direction.

3. It’s not enough to be curious.

Agencies talk loudly and proudly about wanting to employ people who have a lot of curiosity. They say things like, “We want T-shaped thinkers; people who are a mile deep in their specialism, and a mile wide in their curiosity”.  

My problem with this is that too often you have senior folk running teams who know just enough about all of the different disciplines to be bloody dangerous.

If I look at the difference in the nature of advice that we are currently giving clients in comparison to, say, two years ago, it’s changed. The insights we can uncover through digital and data analysis are different and better now. Our understanding and ability to employ these insights is different and better now.

So, unless all of the agency’s senior team are actively engaged in understanding what has changed, you risk becoming dangerously out-of-date damn quickly. You won’t know if your agency is giving clients best advice unless you are in these debates on specific client challenges. We all have to move beyond curiosity. And I’d suggest professional paranoia is a healthier state of mind in the long term.

That’s what I have gleaned from being in the thick of it. If you’re agency-side, these symptoms may be uncomfortably recognisable. Or perhaps you’re a client, for whom these are all-too-familiar frustrations. Whichever side of the fence you sit, finding a remedy is vital for future success.  

  • BEN STEPHENS

    BEN STEPHENS

    CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER