Why clients want to be part of the process not apart from it – the ethics of good business.
It was while I was researching my book Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer that I discovered a few interesting insights into how unethical some clients see agencies. Probably none too surprising if we are really honest with ourselves, though the outcomes will no doubt inflame a few.
We surveyed 100 clients, all in confidence, about their attitudes towards ethics, covering many aspects of people to planet and beyond. Fascinating results. But we also added in a few questions, with narrative answers, about how they felt about agencies. Much of this feedback was used in shaping Creative Orchestra before it launched earlier this year.
Now this is only 100 clients, all major brands and all with major agencies. However, I think we’d get similar results with a bigger group. Unlike many surveys, we didn’t set out to justify or discredit a point.
The overall feeling was that “agencies are a necessary evil”. Harsh words but I’m quoting here. Many felt they over promised and undelivered, both on service and creativity. Even some of the agencies with creative reputations disappointed. “We get much fresher ideas from our digital agency than the ad agency. I think they are stuck in the past.” In fact it seems clients feel many agencies aren’t as creative as they expected, and often needed to be pushed by the client. They were a good few comments about being “behind the curve” rather than in front of it.
Over charging and hidden charges were a sore point, clients often felt “ripped off”, especially when paying a retainer that just paid for account handling and everything else was charged on top. One of the most bitter comments we got was about the number of account handlers needed to change a light bulb, beautifully put by one marketing director. “How many people does it take to change a light bulb? One client. But an ad agency needs three account handlers. One to write a report and brief the other. One to rewrite the brief and have a meeting. The other to work out how many hours it will cost and then double it. And then all three to have another meeting. The final result? They’ve put the wrong light bulb in.”
Seems Mother are most in tune with clients with their approach to employing just project managers, which is what clients want – highly efficient people to see things through. We have also adopted this approach at CO and our clients love it because it makes for a more time and cost efficient business model.
Another really big bug bare of many clients is they want to meet the brains behind the ideas, the creatives and the planners. They hate the defence barrier of account handlers they come across, especially in some of the big agencies. One client has shifted her financial account (over £2m) to a smaller agency from a big group agency because of this one factor. It seems madness in this day and age, what is the problem? Any of our clients can come in and meet the brains on their campaigns or call them. Even come in and brainstorm with them. Do we feel threatened by that? No, clients love it, they want to be part of the process not apart from it. It also helps our creatives be more on brief. And when they are, you get better creative work out.
Time is another complaint, some clients cannot believe just how long it can take to do things, suspecting that by stringing it out the agency can charge more. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in one of those dodgy taxis in a strange city, the cab driver knows he can take the longest route to my hotel and charge me the biggest fare.”
Overall, our small survey suggested that many clients both think and feel agencies are delivering a poor job for the money. Too many middle managers and not enough access to the real talent. They think agencies are outdated in their structure and approach. Over charging, difficult, defensive and disappointing. Harsh, maybe, but unless you can listen (we can all be in denial) you can’t move forward. Much of what we gathered has been put into practice with Creative Orchestra, which is still in many ways an experiment in developing a new model of agency, but it’s winning us major brands.
I’m sure a survey of their agencies would reveal comments about spineless clients, too much red tape, tight budgets and timings, bad briefs and the usual moans. But the clients have the money, we have the talent and they need us to help them build bands and sell product. The question is, do we know how to sell ourselves? And do we know how to work together as a team?
I know that any criticisms of our beloved industry evokes strong emotional reactions – I’m just the messenger – but many of us have been saying we need to face change not challenge it. It’s a case of get with the times or get left behind.
But then again, maybe we’ve all come so complacent no one (of the 300,000 subscribers to Brand Republic) will bother to comment.