How Agencies Fool Themselves

11 Jul

I got hired by an agency that had a slogan: Creative First.

And as a creative person, I was delighted to join an agency that subscribed to this idea.

But it didn’t work quite like that.

One of their clients had absolutely no interest in creativity.

They were a bank and a rather stodgy bank at that.

Once in an internal meeting, I joked the agency slogan ought to be:

Creative First – Except the Bank.

Because when it came to the bank’s rather large slice of business, creativity was simply not required.

There was no real client agency fit and the work simply got ground out.

The agency didn’t like this.

But they put up with it.

In another meeting, I suggested that the agency fire the bank.

(I was a little naïve in those days in case you’re wondering.)

The way I saw it, firing the bank would send a signal that the agency was serious about: Creative First.

So serious they were prepared to live by it.

New accounts would arrive to fill the vacuum.

Better accounts.

More creative accounts.

Maybe this scenario would have transpired, but one thing was certain.

Firing the bank would hurt the bottom line.

Still, someone at the meeting was at least partially listening.

Because a couple of weeks later, instead of firing the bank, the agency fired me.

It was a blow at the time.

But a few months later I experienced a hit of schadenfreude when the bank fired the agency.

I still don’t really understand why the agency couldn’t acknowledge, internally at least, it was Creative First – Except the Bank.

True, it doesn’t have the same ring to it, but what was so wrong with admitting they had to do some dull stuff to pay the bills?

{What comes first?}

Why adopt a slogan that was 70% true at best?

Why not reposition the agency, instead trying to live up to an unattainable ideal?

More recently I worked for an agency that didn’t have a slogan.

They swore by a somewhat long-winded version of account planning.

So instead of a slogan, they had a manifesto.

“We are extremists”, it commenced.

Seeing as they were based in the Middle East, it was funny.

It was ballsy.

It was also sadly untrue.

They were more like waiters.

And not even wonderfully polished waiters, the type who’ll gently steer you away from the three-day old fish, and towards the fresh lamb.

They just took orders from clients.

Admittedly the Middle East is not the easiest place to work.

When the Sheik says “Make the logo bigger”, you basically just suck it up and make the logo bigger.

But not every client was a Sheik.

In spite of which, this “serve the Sheik” mentality, seemed ingrained in the account people.

{Right away Sir!}

I wondered what Allan Kazmer, my old boss would have made of it.

Allan used to say, “It’s a service industry not a servile industry”.

That’s an important distinction.

Because recruiting people with the promise of extremism but a reality of ordinary work builds an atmosphere of frustration that doesn’t help the agency.

Why endorse a manifesto you can’t live up to, when you could just position yourself differently and live up to that instead?

We’re extremists disguised as realists or waiters or whatever.

Positioning is what we’re supposed to get isn’t it?

Agencies also fool themselves without the aid of slogans or manifestos.

I worked for a small agency in Toronto, that sometimes pitched against big agencies.

The big agencies would invariably mention to the prospect that they had bigger resources.

And that these bigger resources translated into bigger and better talent.

Well yes and no.

Big agencies may be able to lure established talent with big salaries, but they’re not necessarily any good at spotting talent.

A few years before I worked at the small agency, a guy was about to graduate from the University of Toronto.

He was interested in the advertising industry.

He wrote to the 18 largest agencies in Toronto asking for an interview.

He got 18 rejection letters.

So eventually he got a job writing for the New Yorker.

And then became a best-selling author recognized as one of the most original marketing minds of his generation.

{The Froracle}

His name is Malcolm Gladwell.

And not one of those 18 agencies could spot his prodigious talent.

Now, if an agency is fooling itself, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s fooling its clients.

But it’s almost certainly not getting the best out of the people who work there.

Which means it’s unlikely that clients are getting the best out of the agency.

And isn’t that the point?

What I’ve learnt from the good agencies I’ve been lucky enough to work at is, they invariably aren’t fooling themselves.


14 Responses to “How Agencies Fool Themselves”

  1. Mary Sue Furtney July 12, 2011 at 7:11 am #

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your bold comments about agencies, doing it the same old way and expecting different results. There has to be a balance between creativity and client billings. Your words are well put.

    • drownthatpuppy July 12, 2011 at 7:53 am #

      Thanks Mary Sue, agree the creative/billings ratio is something every agency needs to determine and that’s fine. Just think some agencies would benefit from being more honest internally about it.

  2. Ed Bernard July 12, 2011 at 9:45 am #

    I personally haven’t worked at an agency in 19 years (been freelancing that whole time), but whenever my client and I have disagreed over a creative issue, I always say the following: “You’re the client, you pay the bills, ultimately you are going to get what you want, but you hired me in part for my opinion, so let me explain why I did what I did.” Maybe that should be my slogan!

    • drownthatpuppy July 12, 2011 at 10:21 am #

      Been freelancing for 3 years now, think I’m starting to miss the buzz of a good agency. Your comment reminds me of Clark Gable in The Hucksters (a great advertising movie BTW) when he says “I get paid for my opinion, then you can ignore it”, or something like that…

  3. Andrew Yang July 12, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    Just being exposed to the agency world for my summer. Coming from a quantitative background I was shocked to read how they view themseleves in the grand scheme of things and how awards like Cassies just reinforce their own belief system.

    I agree with the crux of your argument, either you live up to being “creative” or just tell everybody, hey we are in here to get paid and go home. If you want to be creative do it on your own time.

    • drownthatpuppy July 12, 2011 at 10:41 am #

      Sounds like you’re having an interesting summer. I think most large corporation fool themselves to some degree so it’s not just an agency thing. But awards definitely reinforce some of the worst aspects of the industry — trouble is it’s still nice to win them. What a shallow lot we are…

  4. futuretomorrow July 12, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    Simply brilliant and a pleasure to read. Good show!

  5. Truth as I saw it July 15, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    I’ve been in agencies around the city for awhile. I see your side and i also see the agency side.

    This is why all agencies want beer or car accounts. They are big money accounts that also offer the best opportunities for creative while holding a strong bottom line. The problem is – what do the rest do? What do you do if you don’t have a beer or car account? You have a couple really boring accounts that pays the rent and a bunch of small creative ones that makes the creative team happy.

    The problem is expectations now. I think those advertising puppy mills (college’s and uni’s) tend to fill the heads of students with a fantasy world. The 80’s are over! No body is going to get paid to play ping pong all day and come up with a few ideas. I think people would be shocked once they stepped into a lot of these “hot creative shops” to find they spend as much time filling out ad templates that a sr created as any other agency.

    Why they dont tell the truth? The sexy image sells and It works. Thats why people bust their ass, camp outside agencies and do other retarded stuff so they can get paid under 30k a year and work 16 hour days as a jr.

    • drownthatpuppy July 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

      Hey Anonymous,

      It’s the Don Draper effect innit, it’s only since Mad Men people outside the industry really know what a CW or AD does — which is drink a few Martinis and shag January Jones/Elizabeth Moss.

      Sounds worth competing for…fuck I’m off to ad school.

      I’m not bashing agencies, funnily enough I still work with a few agencies.

      My criticism of a lack of honesty in the industry, is probably just as indicative as a desperate lack of honesty that seems endemic.

      Politicians (obviously) Financiers, Media Moguls, Baseball Players, Police, Many Fortune 500 Cos. and that slimey ACD are all harder and harder to trust.

      And award shows too, I mean did you see that Kia ad that won a Lion, it’s not only crap, it denigrates the whole industry.

      So here’s what I really think outside of the chestnut that old any client/account can be brilliant, which theoretically it totally can BTW


      Look at all those dumb TV spots, Gerber baby insurance crap. Reverse mortgages for seniors., No medical life insurance.

      Unfortunately they work. So let’s just get over it, fess up and move on.

      I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!

  6. shehabelkadi July 28, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    Well i can relay to your experiance here… and though every experinace in the creative field sounds the same; it is unique on its own.

    My take on the CREATIVE FIRST situation is that creative never comes first even if you try your best in positioning your service.

    Creative has to always come at best second… We are in the business of selling stories that serves a purpose or calls for actions. So I believe that because creative came first; even if you eximpt the BANK you put the client second; and instead of finding an understanding that will deliver creative work you positioned the BANK as an exception to the company’s promise.

    This might be a lot of nonsense to you… so to be clear: “creative comes first after our client” should have been the slogan and made it true.

    • drownthatpuppy July 29, 2011 at 11:18 am #

      I think “creative first” works fine as long as you have clients who want adventurous creative advertising. When you have clients like the bank who don’t want to take risks and just want functional advertising, it doesn’t work.

      When you get to that point, you either change slogans or change clients, or do nothing and have a slogan that’s half true at best and a complete fantasy at worse.

      • Dirk Vandeman August 23, 2011 at 7:39 am #

        ‘Creative first’ could technically mean first we try to do something creative but if it’s not what you want, Mr. Banker, we can put together something else.

      • drownthatpuppy August 23, 2011 at 10:13 am #

        Technically, it could mean just about anything. Whatever happened to unambiguity?

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