I spent the past six years as a copywriter and concept developer at a great agency. Along the way, I developed plenty of prejudices about marketers. Having seen many of my best ideas fall by the wayside over the years, I developed a holier-than-thou attitude and came to the conclusion that marketers were simply number-driven metronomes who favoured short-term gain over longer-term brand equity. Essentially, I believed that I had the brand’s best interests at heart, while marketers only had their own.
Now, this may be well true. And having now spent half a year product-side, I can see how easy it is for marketers to lose focus on things like brand equity. Put simply, your job as a marketer is to deliver the numbers. If more people like you on social, or write glowing blog posts about your brand mission as a result then great. But if not, you have still delivered your numbers. The best agencies know that it all hangs together. They make their clients’ lives easier with great work that delivers on the bottom line but which also strengthens equity and generates buzz.
My initial point was that I assumed I knew more than them. And that is my first challenge to agencies – stop assuming you know your clients’ business. In fact, just stop assuming full stop and do whatever it takes to get to know it. Agencies rely too much on desk research these days. The token factory visit/photo op aside, how much time do they spend on the shop floor with their clients? Not enough.
Agency people are always hearing how marketers are perpetually frustrated at the failure of their agencies to truly understand their business. I used to dismiss this, preferring to believe that it was yet another way of deflecting attention away from their own poor performance. I now understand it. It took me the best part of two months’ full time immersion in the Podio world just to scratch the surface of our business – the challenges we face, the historical context, the vision, the competitor landscape. I’m toying with the idea of using an agency for some projects but getting them up to speed on all of those things would require such a significant investment of my time and resources and I need to be completely convinced that it will pay off. Indeed, leaving the agency world has helped me appreciate just how hard it is for them to make a difference in their clients’ businesses. Which is why I now get doubly frustrated with marketers who do nothing but moan about their agencies. There are plenty of reasons work can fail but you’re never going to get the best out of your agency if they fear and despise you.Take the time to get to know the creative team. Praise them, take them out for dinner. Make them feel appreciated and they will try harder next time. It’s not rocket science.
As time passed in my new gig, I realised there were plenty of things agencies and marketers were doing wrong. But fixating on those is counter-productive. Especially when there are just as many things they can learn from each other. The latter are gathered here in three broad groups – the first two, Data and Purpose skew towards what agencies can learn from their clients while Speed deals with what clients can learn from agencies. I’ve learned so much going to the client side and I hope there is something here that can benefit you in your work:
It is practically a cliché now that agencies, especially some of the more traditional ones, are struggling to get to grips with data. Clichés tend to be true. We have actual data scientists here – people who studied this stuff for years and whose dispassionate analysis provides direction. For agencies whose clients are yet to understand or exploit the potential of the data around their products, there is a clear opportunity to take ownership and deliver business-changing insights.
What is the purpose of an agency? We struggled with this where I worked, and it is certainly something that seems to be more institutionally embedded among great companies than among agencies. While the importance of organisational purpose may be overstated at times, I still think it is a valuable tool for creating a collective sense of ownership among employees. As agencies resort to ever more florid, jargon-infused ‘About’ pages in a bid to differentiate themselves, it could be they are actually overlooking a simpler, more unifying reason-for-being. Instead of promoting how they do what they do, agencies should spend more time on the why. I suspect the reason agencies do not do this so much is the fear of being niched: most agencies don’t want to limit their pool of potential customers after all. But with the exception of the handful of superstar agencies whose work speaks for itself, most desperately need to find other ways to differentiate themselves.
For a former agency creative, the speed and sense of urgency with which we work at Podio can be overwhelming. Tasks that I would once be given a week or more to accomplish must now be done in an hour. Last week we made, launched and promoted a website in a day. The day after we signed a deal to extend our reach in Sweden. We had the idea in the morning and we were briefing a creative team in Stockholm a day later. That brief would have taken days to polish in an agency. Would it have been a better brief? Probably, but I doubt it would have been two days better. That said, I see it as my job to help us slow down a bit, and to understand that truly transformational ideas take time to come up with, polish, and to execute in memorable ways that cut through the clutter of landfill marketing.