Friday, February 25, 2011

Ditch the pitch

As reported in Ad Age recently, US retail giant Sears has had written into their NDA that any ideas presented to them by agencies during the pitch process will belong to Sears, irrespective of whether or not the agency wins the pitch.

This announcement has, understandably, caused a bit of a ruckus. Ad agencies are opting out. The American Association of Advertising Agencies wrote a letter calling the clause ‘unreasonable and unfair’.

Sears and their review consultancy have declined to comment but the unofficial reasoning that has begun to surface seems to be that they feel uneasy about the amount of information that agencies get to know about their business in the pitch process and have concerns about this information being used to the advantage of their competitors by losing agencies. They also argue that they are often pitched similar ideas by rival agencies and don’t want to be accused by losing agencies if the winning agencies ideas are similar to theirs.

Honestly, I can’t be bothered looking into the minutia of these arguments on either side. The whole thing is just screaming proof that this process is broken beyond repair.

Agencies have always found pitching to be morally ambiguous territory. Now it’s clear that clients are not comfortable with it either. Why would any of us want to participate in a process that breeds this much mistrust and resentment? And how can it possibly be seen as a good way to start off such an important business relationship?

In tweaking the parameters of a tradition that is so clearly faulty, Sears are just making the whole structure even shakier.

It’s not hard to tot up the time and money – not to mention the erosion of trust and respect – that would be saved by dropping the creative pitch process and reviewing agencies in a more rational way. So why does the tradition persist in it's present form?

I can't help wondering what we (as agencies) are doing wrong to make clients have so little courage in their convictions when it comes to employing us. That we have to do the job to convince them that we can do the job.

Or maybe it's about keeping Heads of Advertising and CMOs busy and powerful. Egged-on by 'review consultants' that really shouldn't exist at all if everyone else knew how to do their jobs properly.

With a bit of luck Sears will have broken the camel’s back with this one and we can start experimenting with something closer to James Cooper’s ideal of Zero Waste Creativity.

Choosing an agency is an employment process and should be handled as one. Look at the candidate’s past experience and references. Interview them extensively. Get to know their attitudes and principles. Then decide if they are capable of doing the job and if they have a character that you can work with.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Up the Organisation

This week's post I have borrowed with gratitude from Robert Townsend, erstwhile Avis rent a car CEO, best-selling author and Theory Y evangelist.

There are so many great things to say about Robert 'super client' Townsend that it's hard to know where to start. In the piece I've lifted here, he talks about working with DDB on the famous 'We Try Harder' strategy. 

Reading and re-reading this stuff (as I have done many times) it's hard to see how anyone could argue against it. But in my time I've never met a client that even comes close to this level of straight up and down respect for their agency. Or, arguably, any agency that deserves it.

Fire the whole advertising department and your old agency. Then go get the best new agency you can. And concentrate your efforts on making it fun for them to create candid, effective advertising for you. Unless you’ve done this the odds favor that you have a bunch of bright people working at cross purposes to produce — at best — mediocre ads. 

We started at Avis asking a few people for a list of the hottest agencies. Then we called on the creative heads of those agencies and tried to interest them in the rent a car business. Ultimately we stumbled on the right question: “How do we get five million dollars of advertising for one million dollars?” (Our competition had five dollars for each dollar we had.)

Finally, Bill Bernbach heard the question and answered: “If you want five times the impact, give us ninety days to learn enough about your business to apply our skills, and then run every ad we write where we tell you to run it. Our people work to see how effective their ideas are. But most clients put our ads through a succession of assistant V.P.s and V.P.s of advertising, marketing, and legal until we hardly recognize the remnants. If you promise to run them just as we write them, you’ll have every art director and copywriter in my shop moonlighting on your account.”

We shook hands on it.

The rest is history. Our internal sales growth rate increased from 10 per cent to 35 per cent in the next couple of years.

Moral: don’t hire a master to paint you a masterpiece then assign a roomful of schoolboy-artists to look over his shoulder and suggest improvements.

To reinforce this extraordinary charge into the rational unknown, Townsend even drafted a client/agency manifesto which he hung in everyone's office both at DDB and Avis. This wonderful piece of straight-thinking boldness is often erroneously credited to Bill Bernbach but it was written by THE CLIENT.

It went like this:

Avis Rent A Car
Advertising Philosophy

1. Avis will never know as much about advertising as DDB, and DDB will never know as much about the rent a car business as Avis.
2. The purpose of the advertising is to persuade the frequent business renter (whether on a business trip, a vacation or renting and extra car at home) to try Avis.
3. A serious attempt will be made to create advertising with five times the effectiveness of the competition's advertising.
4. To this end, Avis will approve or disapprove, not try to improve, ads which are submitted. Any changes suggested by Avis must be grounded on a material operating defect (a wrong uniform for example).
5. To this end, DDB will only submit for approval those ads which they as an agency recommend. They will not "see what Avis thinks of that one."
6. Media selection should be the primary responsibility of DDB. However, DDB is expected to take the initiative to get guidance from Avis in weighting of markets or special situations, particularly in those areas where cold numbers do not indicate the real picture. Media judgement are open to discussion. The conviction should prevail. Compromises should be avoided.

I was tempted to underline what I think are the most important parts of this. But there's nothing here I don't agree with. Would it be possible now to start all client/agency relationships off with a manifesto like this?

Anyone not willing to sign up? And why?

'Up the Organisation — how to stop the Corporation from stifling people and strangling profits.' by Robert Townsend was published in 1970 by Fawcett Crest Books. Sadly it is now out of print but well worth trying to get a copy second hand.) Many thanks to Tim O'Donnell for pointing me in its direction.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Are the good agencies the ones who argue back?

A client once described his experience of working with me with the comment ‘just don’t expect to stay in your comfort zone.’ I’m still not sure whether to be pleased or worried by this remark.

Pleased because it’s good to challenge your clients and not let them (or yourselves) take the path of least resistance when a better solution can be aimed for. But worried because I don’t like the idea that I’m causing anyone discomfort.

I like to think I take care of my clients, reassure them and make them feel they are in good hands. But you can’t win someone’s trust if you don’t tell them outright when, in your professional judgement, they are wrong.

The petulant response from many designers when a client requests (what they consider) unreasonable changes is, “why don’t they go to Prontoprint next time and tell them how they want to logo to look.” There are plenty of places you can go where standing over the shoulder of a Mac operator giving instructions is acceptable behavior (hint, a good design firm is not one of them). These days, add in crowd sourcing and easy-to-use DIY graphics software and the range of ways that clients can get things done cheaper and with less back-chat than going to a design firm, are abundant.

Still most of the time they come to us. And this is because experienced, professional people know that if they want something done well they need to hire experienced professional people to do it.

When you’re a client pressures of ROI are very real and agencies that seem to be snubbing their noses at this can be infuriating and in some cases kind of scary.

As an agency you really don’t want to get put in the ‘too hard’ basket. No matter how great your results, your client may decide they just don’t have the patience or resources to deal with you next time and chose an easier route.

So when does pleasant and easy to work with become gutless and mediocre and when does challenging and forthright become just a pain in the arse?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Who do you really work for?

There are two main differences between the client/agency relationships of design firms and ad agencies and that of other client/agency or client/practitioner relationships.

The first is that a good part of the output is ‘creative’ which can often be interpreted as subjective and unquantifiable (whole separate discussion to be had right there). This sets us apart from, for example, law firms, accountants, builders, management consultants and a whole range of other services that rely on clients to survive.

The second is that our clients are not our customers. In other words, they are not the end-user of whatever it is that we are working on. This creates a very different dynamic to one between, say, an interior decorator or landscape gardener and their clients. If your client is your direct customer, they are hiring you for your professional knowledge and skill but they are also paying you to create something that they personally like. Which means that you are to a large extent at the mercy of their wims. Their favourite colour is puce, they’ve always had a thing for tea roses...

Sound familiar? Frustratingly many clients for whom the consumer —and not themselves — is the end-user of their work, still behave as if they are the customer and that, as the saying goes, they should always be right.

How do we best manage this balance and keep everyone in sight of the fact we all work for the consumer when one party holds the budgets, the power of approval and ultimately the responsibility for success?