Agencies must pull together

Patrick McConville on why agencies need to work in tandem to move forward

The very first episode of Mad Men ends with the main character Don Draper returning home to his family after a long day at the office. As he kisses his young daughter Sally good night the soundtrack of ‘The Street Where You Live’ plays with the lyrics “I have often walked, down this street before, but the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.”

Mad Men fans will know that everything is about to change for Draper – his home life, Madison Avenue,  where he works, and US society as a whole. Transformation, and how we adapt to change, becomes a central theme. Watching this it reminded me that the marketing services business, in its current form, is broken and has been so for quite some time now.

Technology’s impact on consumers has brought the problem into starker focus. As agencies, we talk a lot about media fragmentation and how hard it is to reach and influence consumers, but we are not good at discussing the damaging effect of fragmentation. It appears that we are structured against our own best interests and the best interests of our clients.

We extol the virtues of integration and convergence yet we still divide ourselves into specialist agency silos – loosely connected at best and desperately opposed at worst. We are an industry that is, quite literally, in pieces. Yet we are still surprised by the feeding frenzy that can sometimes occur after a client has given a ‘cross-agency brief’.

When there are agencies with different roles, agendas and most crucially different profit and loss sheets to account for, disagreement is inevitable. How could a client ever hope to get a truly joined-up response when all the players on the agency team are shooting at different goals? It can lead to huge inefficiencies for everyone involved.

It can also stifle our collective output, limiting innovation and effectiveness. There are examples of cross-agency collaboration but not too many. Media agencies get frustrated when media channels are underused or misunderstood by creative teams. Yet they can be guilty of buying volume media without taking time to understand the creative strategy.

All for one: Are media agencies looking for different revenue streams to make up for increasingly squeezed margins? Time will tell, but it is a good start at least. For now, we must pull together and help clients navigate across the shifting sands. Adland should seriously think about taking a leaf from Mad Men, pictured, when things were better together.

Creative agencies can adopt an ivory tower approach to creativity – viewing the media plan as something that ‘the other agency does’ and reducing it to media spaces that they need to ‘fill in.’ What the client ends up with is something resembling a costly ‘Colour Me In’ exercise. Sometimes agencies do not even bother to sit down together to join up the dots.

At best, this disconnect between creative and media is inefficient and limiting but at worst it can also contribute to a culture of shirking responsibilities and shifting the blame. “The insight was wrong”, “the creative was weak”, “the media was poorly planned.” These are excuses can be heard when what was promised to the client has not been delivered.

It begs the question, why is the industry structured this way? Has it always been like this? The agency carve-up can be traced back to the mid 1980’s when media specialists, previously integrated within creative agencies, parted ways and set up on their own. It marked the start of the modern media and creative agency mix-up and was followed by other advertising disciplines being broken off – research, branding, PR and, in time, digital.

The negative effect of these decisions can be felt even more today as tech disrupts everything. The schism prevents agencies and clients from addressing an even more pressing concern – a lack of focus on tech and its strategic importance in how to grow brands. Technology is no longer just part of a brand’s advertising mix – it has redefined how brands need to behave.

Some of the most talented and essential people working in marketing services today are not media planners, copywriters or art directors – they are designers and creative technologists – yet their importance is often overlooked. The IAPI agency industry survey revealed that less than eight per cent of creative people can be categorised as technology-focused.

To downplay the role of tech, or at best, only pay lip-service to it, reveals a worrying level of ignorance, or perhaps denial. While there has been an entrepreneurial and adaptive approach to digital elsewhere, many legacy agencies are still just reacting to it. Can we really expect clients to be loyal when we are slower to adapt then they are? We must lead by example.

Things, however, are starting to change for the better. Agency mergers and acquisitions, mainly driven by the media groups are bringing media and creative closer together. How successful this will be remains to be seen. Will media agencies be able to convincingly and objectively lead creative strategy, or is it being done more out of necessity?

Patrick McConville is client partner and deputy managing director at ICAN



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