What are agencies for?

This week Campaign published two significant pieces about the agency business: Magda Ibrahim’s thoughtful reflection on an unusual level of volatility at the top of agencies, and Mediacom’s Toby Jenner’s article on pitching, entitled, ‘Want a better relationship? Run a better pitch process’. I have watched an extraordinary year of change in the agency business largely from the sidelines as I put all my energies into finishing my latest book THE VERY IDEA! (which is about the value of ideas and creativity). I thought the silly season might be a good time to return to making a nuisance of myself by making a few comments and suggestions.

Ibrahim related the epidemic of big name departures to fundamental shifts in the agency business and in particular to an apparent change in what clients are looking for, as they attempt to pick through the bewildering melange of traditional agencies, specialists and consulting firms out there. She predicts that there will be more change and more top level exits as agencies reinvent themselves to become more effective strategic and commercial partners to ever-more demanding clients. She also quotes several industry experts who believe clients are looking to their agencies to provide consultancy, not just service and ideas.

I find it hard to disagree with Jenner that better run pitches and civilised client behaviour should lead to a fruitful relationship between the enlightened client and their newly appointed agency. At AAI we spent 30 years facilitating pitches with that end in view.

But let me come back to the title of this blog: What are agencies for? Are they destined to become a new breed of management consultant? And is the traditional pitch process, where a client asks 6 or so agencies for free recommendations, the best way forward in 2018?

I sincerely believe that the answer to both questions is a resounding No.

What agencies – good, successful agencies – have always been good at is creativity and ideas.

In an increasingly difficult business world, set in a turbulent sea of global discord and chaos, ideas have never been more needed. Not consulting models, ideas. The essence of consulting is the application to the job in hand of processes and solutions that have worked elsewhere. The essence of creativity is the opposite. It is all about rigorous interrogation of a problem, an opportunity or a challenge, and coming up with original ideas that impact disproportionately and competitively on audiences. Agencies are not designed to be benchmarking dispensers of wisdom, any more than they want to be candidates for a one night stand. Their destiny is to be the valued partner of successful (and appreciative) clients.

And as to pitches being the foundation of successful relationships, it may be true as far as it goes. But agencies should be cautious about setting too much store by relationships. My experience is that relationships are extremely important to agencies (it is their business model after all), but not important at all to clients unless the relationship is delivering results. Then that relationship is well on its way to becoming a partnership, which is valuable to both sides. Once agencies are accepted as trusted partners they earn the right to be an objective and independent voice, rather than just the recipient of a brief and architect of a solution. In so many client cultures there is an endemic group-think, which outsiders (like agencies in passive relationships) tend to nurture. But agencies who are true partners can challenge defensiveness and received thinking.

Which takes me back to the significance – or otherwise – of the pitch process.

I feel there is something incongruous about seeking to lay the foundations of a high level of partnership by running a master/servant style winner-take-all game show. And re-reading his own piece, Toby Jenner might see the irony of his enthusiasm for the benevolent client bestowing $100 gift vouchers on the hewers and drawers in the winning agency pitch team.

What – in my view – are agencies for?

  1. Being the communications specialists that come up with the creativity that gives their clients the competitive edge that contributes to business success.
  2. Doing this consistently over time in such a way as to earn the right to be seen as commercial and strategic partners (as well as creative wizards!).
  3. Building a successful and profitable business by so doing, and creating a motivating and fulfilling workplace for the best talent.

Can agencies do this without constantly reinventing themselves – not just to keep up with galvanic change, but to anticipate it?

No they can’t. But exactly the same is true of their clients, which is why partnership is so important.