Once Gary McLoughlin was promoted to managing director and Michael Killeen became chairman of Dialogue in July this year, they decided the agency’s moment of reckoning had come. As Robin Williams told his students in Dead Poets Society, it was carpe diem time. A plan which had taken nine months to formulate now had to be put into action.

Aware that the market had only been going in one direction – or as McLoughlin would have it “what was a lake had now become a puddle” – the time for talking at Dialogue was over. Rather than just continue to scrape by in the years ahead, the board decided to go for it. The plan would see the agency recruiting new talent and expand overseas. McLoughlin joined Dialogue from Cawley Nea\TBWA three years ago. “Rather than sit tight, keep doing what we’ve always done and put on the crash helmets and hoping it would all go away, we decided to face things head on,” McLoughlin says. Between agency shareholders and Enterprise Ireland, they got €1 million to fund the plan.

In researching the ‘best in class’ out there, McLoughlin worked with Brian Sparks of Agency Assessments and a London innovation outfit called What If! The far-reaching Winspiration model stretches from top advertising slogans and direct marketing campaigns around the world, to talks on award-winning client/agency relationships.

Lined up on the interview room wall is a series of A4 sheets detailing the agency-client process. “It’s about getting clients on our side of the table,” he says, “working with them to achieve a goal – because it doesn’t always just happen.” Sparks told McLoughlin there is no agency in Dublin whose sole concern is solving a client’s business problems.

It’s too often all about the big idea. The business problem is relegated down the to-do list, to be tackled eventually: “ah yeah, we’ll get to that”. The CEO thinks otherwise and that is why marketing is not taken seriously at boardroom level. Killeen points to a global report by Fournaise which gave the thumbs down to marketers’ efforts to help business.

The report said that 80 per cent of CEOs either do not trust or are not convinced by marketers’ work, especially compared to other company executives. From interviews with 1,200 large corporations in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, it was shown that marketing has a credibility problem. Eight in ten company bosses accuse marketers of being too disconnected from short, medium and long-term company realities. They say marketers too often lose sight of their real purpose.

CEOs say marketers must generate more consumer demand for products and services in a measurable way. For business to consumers (B2C), more demand means more products off the shelves, more sell-in, more sell-out, more sales volume and more revenue. CEOs accuse marketers of living too much in a creative and social media bubble.

They focus too much on ‘likes’, tweets, feeds and followers, none of which add to the ‘bottom line’. While most business to business (B2B) marketers know about the latest technologies, they fail to deliver on the customer demand expected of them. They pay too much attention to technologies and not enough on the strategies and campaigns.

To earn CEO trust, marketers must change their ways. They need to get a firm grip on what results, return on investment (ROI) and business performance really mean. They should become no-nonsense professionals, trained to focus on the right data for the best decisions. They have to understand they must start ‘cutting the rubbish’.

McLoughlin says if clients sign up to the Dialogue proposition they will be on their side of the table. They promise to deliver in terms of solving the business issues and provide great ideas. “We will not go over budgets, no other agency will say that. We will hit the time lines and do world-class work. It’s about adding energy to the client relationship.”

Killeen agrees. “Once an agency can guarantee to a client – and this is what they are screaming out for today – that you will not go over budget and will deliver on time, they will love you. It’s that simple. But can you do it? We’re saying they should come over here and sit with us, and that applies to all agencies. They’ll see the logic and buy into it.”

Working to the proposition, ‘Sales overnight, brand over time’, Dialogue have worked with AA Ireland, AIB, Aer Lingus, Amdocs (a US software company with Middle East ties), Bank of Ireland, Bord Bia, Citibank, Dell, HP, IDA Ireland, Microsoft, Ulster Bank and VHI. The agency recently ended its long-term relationship with An Post.

‘We will not go over budgets – no other agency will say that’ – Gary McLoughlin, pictured right, with agency colleague Michael Killeen

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New clients that have signed up to the Dialogue business plan are 02, Britvic, Core, Danone, Cow & Gate, the Convention Centre and Matheson Ormsby Prentice. Valeo Foods hired them to develop social media for Odlums. Apart from investing €1m in people and training, they plan to refurbish their premises on Wellington Quay.

“We better spend this money now,” Killeen says. “We’re raising our hands and saying let’s go for it. It’s risky. We could sit on our backsides for the next few years and live off the cushion… to hell with that.” McLoughlin says if you build it, they will come. Killeen calls it ‘rolling dice’; McLoughlin prefers ‘loaded dice’, wishing for all sixes to turn up.

McLoughlin is fulsome in his praise of the talent Dialogue boasts, not least Ger Nolan, Des Columb and Sinead Ni Ghaora. On the board is Kingsley Aikins, known for his part in the Worldwide Ireland Funds, for promoting the Irish diaspora and working on projects in the US and Australia. Killeen will announce other high-profile board recruits soon.

Among the latest recruits are Conor Byrne, who heads up the agency’s digital services. He was previously with Cybercom. Thomas O’Duffy, a former NASA employee, was also hired to strengthen the digital team. Peter Mahon joined from XM Solutions as client service director, he and McLoughlin having worked together at Cawley Nea\TBWA.

The plan is to hire a consumer planner, interactive art director and copywriter before the year is out. They currently have 20 staff and they hope to double that within two years.

Killeen launched Dialogue in 1994 to cater for foreign investment firm in Ireland. A board member of the Marketing Institute, he knows about business – its strengths, of course, but also the pitfalls. Just get him started. The domestic market is on its knees. So he is looking again to work with more overseas clients – things have come full circle.

He is chairman of the John Caples awards programme for Ireland. He hopes his networking through IDN (International Direct Network), a body comprising 40 independent agencies and which he currently chairs, will help him fulfil his ambitions. Fingers are crossed at Dialogue that all goes to plan and that like the tall edifice built of Jenga bricks in the agency’s reception area, the firm’s progress will remain steady.

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