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It's not about you

DATE PUBLISHED: September 30, 2010
We do really work in a strange industry. Officially we work on behalf of our clients, but sometimes this seems almost comical in the face of what we do on a daily basis. We bash each other on sites like AgencySpy, we rip each other’s work on BrandFreak, and we troll AdAge and AdWeek to find out what we are all up to.

Then awards season rolls around and the collective scrutiny goes up geometrically. The “Cult of the Clio” sets in and a new round of breast-beating or shirt-rending (depending on whether you won or not) ensues. We count up the Clios, Lions, Pencils, Webbies, and others. We place them in positions of honor in our lobbies and right in the front of our agency presentations. For a group of confident A-type marketing ninjas we certainly have the insecurity thing down cold.

But there is something more dangerous in all this competitive energy. The danger is we start actually thinking it’s about us. That we count our success as agencies and individuals based on the amount of hardware sitting on groaning shelves behind us. I was reminded of this again as I read an article this week. The article was one of these crystal ball/navel-gazing routines about the future of our industry, and in particular the future of media agencies.

Fair enough, I for one have been howling for years now that the media plan as it exists is woefully obsolete in the face of today’s interactive, real-time consumer. So hearing where industry leaders think this is all heading is of great interest to me. Instead, I read the article shaking my head as I realized we still just don’t get it.

Take this quote for instance. “The media agency of the future will be restructured around four core principles: accountable for the impact we have on client’s businesses…” You will notice I did not get to the other three principles, and the reason for that is I came to a screeching halt at the first principle. The agency of the future will pay attention to the impact on the client’s businesses? Not to be petty, but isn’t impacting our client’s business our whole reason for being? I would love to a client of this person reading this and thinking, gee, you mean you don’t do that for me today? If you are an agency today and are not holding yourself accountable to your client, then how are you measuring your success?

Oh yeah, with awards. Silly me, I forgot.

Or take this quote. Another executive says that agencies will be “re-orienting the process around market insights, desired consumer behaviors and profitable business outcomes.” Seriously, is this person saying his firm doesn’t do this today? If he isn’t oriented around profitable business outcomes then what exactly is he focused on? Making his client unprofitable?

What is amazing to me is that these quotes are delivered without any consideration of how upsetting they are. That focusing on the client is what agencies of the future will do, not what we do today. No wonder clients are badgering us about budgets, asking us to prove results, and marching us down to their procurement departments. We keep telling them that will be treat them with care in the future! Well, we will do that right after we do something super cool and neat that makes us look cutting-edge.

So what is the antidote? A creative director I know once said something that has stuck with me: “Your brand is not a toy.”

This really points to a problem in our industry. We do in fact often treat our client’s brand like a toy. We are going to take the latest technology, the cool new channel, and apply it against our client’s brand because, well, it’s the latest technology and the cool new channel. It’s our industry’s fascination with jumping on the new thing before people start thinking we are old ourselves. We do this because the value we see is in building our own brand, not our client’s.

We almost need a Hippocratic oath like doctors, a pledge to do no harm to our client’s brand by overzealousness or self-importance. A realization that our success is measured by only thing: our client’s success. And that if we start thinking this is all about us, and not the clients, the whole edifice comes tumbling down on our heads.

One of the best client services executives I knew used to welcome new account executives with the following spiel. He would congratulate them on finally being at an agency. That they were going to have more fun than they thought possible at a job. They would get to wear fun clothes, play loud music, be goofballs during the day and alcoholics by night. Just when the rookie started feeling good about the whole thing he would lean in and say the following last line. “And don’t forget, you can always be replaced.”

He didn’t mean the rookie specifically. He meant the agency. He meant never forget the client. He meant he would ultimately judge their success as an AE by the client’s success as a business. He meant that if any of that were forgotten, the agency would be replaced…just like that.

What he meant was, it’s not about us.

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