Too big. Too slow. Too much noise.
Choose to collaborate & create rather than efficiently manage
I had a good discussion over the weekend about the future alignment of big agencies and big brands. The debate focused on three core issues
- How we need to test more things out to meet the changing needs of customers
- How much quicker everything has to be
- If the big agencies are geared up for such fast turnaround & innovations
Really the debate was around the final question – I know they are trying to change but not always succeeding. Time is running out. I believe that this current downturn will cause fundamental changes to the relationship between clients, brands, agencies and consumers. The pressures that will force this tipping point are both from clients and from within the agencies and, specifically, their top talent.
The proliferation of specialist agencies that started 20+ years ago with media separating from creative, relationship marketing execution separating from advertising, identity studios involving into brand consultancies, the rise of digital specialist beyond web developers and online advertising and the formation of a few places that are more generalist idea not execution offerings has left clients dealing with too many agency contacts, all great at some things but not everything. During the same period, the Management Consultants have proliferated exponentially inside many of the same clients. It’s no wonder senior clients feel time starved, over advised and generally frustrated.
Even though many of the Holding Companies have been successful in pitching a “one-stop-answer” for Billion Dollar businesses, these pitches are so in the sights of procurement that the decision is only over lowest price and how many people (sorry, FTE’s – full time equivalent people) are involved in the deal. Therefore the focus is driven by a combination of efficiency (to make the deal profitable) and management (to ensure consistency of service) as much less on delivering better creative ideas. Consumers and customers (and indeed staff) need to be understood, connected too, delighted and heard, which are driven by creativity, insights, cut through and smarts = better creative ideas.
Sure, the Holding Company has a number of specialist agencies who are geared up to deliver their specialism brilliantly – and they do. A lot of clients form their own rosters of specialist agencies who are world class at their specialism. There is great talent in these agencies – but too much overlap and duplication stops the talent performing at their best for the brands.
The overlap takes the form of big teams with too many different disciplines working apart and only occasionally meeting. A big brand may have between 5-7 agency teams working on it. These teams usually work in different agencies or on different floors within big agency groups. All teams have roles that are specific to the agency and not for the client. They are assigned by a basic billing model that allocates a percentage of time per task.
Too many agencies still have first-point-of-contact people who represent the agency to client rather than create things or provide insight. Many of these traditional roles are replicated across each of the client’s agencies – whether from the same holding company or not. Too many account managers or project managers or junior this and still-in-training-for-that. Important internal roles, less important external roles, but all the roles are accounted for, paid for and in each process from each discipline & in each agency. Clients also have proliferated roles to look after executional disciplines and follow the process to execute things with too many levels and with a niche focus aimed inside a company rather than in gaining real insight with their consumers outside, in order to provide meaningful, rewarding experiences that is demanded of 21st Century Branding.
We hear a lot about noise from a consumer’s perspective with millions of messages in too many channels – ironically there is an internal noise in these agencies that can be distracting for both clients & negates the very reason they may have hired agencies in the first place – namely to create and improve brands and their relationships with consumers, customers and staff - but also the noise affects the top talent inside agencies. The ‘noise’ takes to form of
- Running an agency – reporting, communicating, managing, meetings, meetings
- Reporting to the holding company
- Internal processes (often to update people for not at client meetings)
- Being allocated to other clients (it’s not uncommon to add the FTE percentages so that people are allocated 3 months for every one month of time)
- New business gathering
- Training younger people – or use them as blockers.
- Meetings, meetings, meetings, politics, politics, politics
This noise not only distracts the top talent away from building brands, it frustrates them. Everything slows down the processes of creativity. The talent spends less & less time with the client and at the client and/or in the world learning – it has a big knock on frustration at the client too. The frustration has always been there, but today, the holding companies are so pervasive, a lot of options for clients and agency talent can seem to be out of the frying pan & into the fire.
Their clients need talent to succeed in getting new ideas our more quickly but are getting increasingly frustrated when the good ideas are slowed by over burdensome process & models and or in forms that are difficult to test – these days testing has to be done in real markets not in real market conditions or focus groups and be small enough to fit on a model of “do, learn, do again, do different.” This includes having dialogue with consumers on a weekly basis not in annually or for a big launch.
The change has begun. Some of the clients are early adaptors. Much agency talent are leaving to collaborate with other talent to create new models, to choose to work on projects they want too, or with other talent they respect. The freelance model of choice. Smaller creative boutiques are happy to recognise they don’t know everything but know enough talent outside to mean the client can get access to the best talent. Clients are picking specific teams from their agencies to work directly with together rather than via each individual agency. Virtual networks, collaborative villages used to be the prerogative and vernacular of tech start ups.
Hence the rise of “open source collaboration” – whether within smaller, more fleet of foot, agencies set up to keep that way or choose to work as an individual or dynamic team to focus on creating & making things. Clients want to work with the best creative and strategic talent. They are rarely all in the same agency. And they are always the most sought after in the agency. Holding Companies don’t always give top talent the freedom of choice or the full freedom to create. Clients themselves have too many balls to juggle to stand still.
Creative collaboration direct with clients and consumers is one way of ensuring that breakthrough ideas are tested quickly in order to build growth back into a clients business. At the same time, it breathes passion back into creative people – right and left brained brand builders who want to make a difference – who are not turned on by efficiency and management process that they are increasingly frustrated with.
Smaller, faster, focused creativity is like adrenaline to the best agency talent – not managing efficiently. It’s choosing to give your all to a project or a brand. The same at the client. The same for consumers. The effect is positively infectious. Of course there are times when it still happens at big agencies and big brands. At pitches and launches – in times of crisis management. The trick is to make these acute one off periods more regular, more often. Otherwise what will happen is that creative brand projects will be worked on by a creative collective – to deliver a powerful impact to a consumer’s experience or a meaningful role for a company’s staff on the customer journey.
These collectives will not be retained to work beyond the agreed project. Another project could follow but not immediately with the same brand. The teams will mix and match themselves over time to complement each other to drive each solution and then move on to choose another. As this process developed, creative talent & innovators will merge with other advisors in the management consulting field. Choosing to collaborate, whatever the fee or reward is for the collective or the client will be based on short term shared goals and outcomes. This form of collaboration provides the opportunity for each person, client or creative, to keep being curious, right or left brained, to make an impact, to be a part of a wider community, to solve difficult or interesting problems quickly and feel increased self worth, beyond the measure of a salaried job with the accompanying processes and management responsibilities.
So yes, it was an interesting debate on Saturday night. An optimistic one too, because these are times of change, where action will trump inertia, and fear fuelled doom mongers do not have to be right. The debate happened at a charity ball for Mencap’s Grove Cottage. The power to do good by many for a few was apparent, in our little community.