What an 80-year-old Couple Can Teach the Agency of the Future

written by Chuck Kent, Director of Brand Content at Avenue
(BrandSmart Speaker 2016)

For years I’ve been marveling that the ad agency business model still hasn’t crumbled under the weight of its considerable expense and extreme self-importance. Why do clients put up with it? Why did they pay for its deficiencies to be amplified in the move to holding companies that always seemed better at aggregating wealth for agency dealmakers than creating economies of scale or, heaven forfend, simplified resourcing or business relationships for clients? Granted, there were and are exceptions; there always are to any rant like this. But to continue…   why hasn’t the Mad-Men-worshipping industry been terminally disrupted by wily 21st century iconoclasts, driving it right into irrelevance?

Great structural inertia on both sides of the client-agency divide has certainly played a role, but the progressive dismantling and reimagining of the media and content worlds (and I do not mean media buying and content marketing) may now be able to force a true re-ordering of the agency world, too, and the client relationships it exists to serve.

That said, one shouldn’t assume that the “old guard” is letting down its guard. In fact, I have for some years now been watching the progress of one supposedly traditional firm, Energy BBDO, as it pursues maintaining relevance in the new world order (full disclosure, I am ex-BBDO, New York and Chicago, but have no current business relationship or financial interest). And so, when it came time as a Chicago AMA volunteer to help put together its latest BrandSmart conference, I suggested having BBDO and its long… long… long-term client Wrigley come describe what is required in “Getting Creative with the B2C Client-Agency Relationship of the Future.”

You can watch the full panel in the video that follows; I will also recap basics of the discussion with John Starkey, Regional Vice President of Marketing, Wrigley Americas, Andres Ordóñez, Chief Creative Officer, Energy BBDO and Lianne Sinclair, Senior Vice President, Group Account Director at Energy BBDO, moderated by Erin Paul, Director of Design Strategy at Trinity Brand Group.

Here are the highlights of what I took away from the panel — which is to say, this is my interpretation of their remarks, and not anything like verbatim reportage. For the panelists thoughts word-for-word, I refer you to the video.

Don’t start with the ad – start with the business challenge

At BrandSmart 2015, in the Branding Roundtable I moderated on brand relevance, Tim Simonds, CMO of the Kellogg School of Management, made one succinct and central point: Your brand is your business.  It is not an overlay, not an add-on, not a tactical appendage to move a little product. It is the essential core of your entire enterprise. John Starkey led with this point—and, to be honest, I was struck by how long it has taken the agency world to realize that the business world does not revolve around their efforts, but the other way around.  It’s only about “the work” in so much as that work moves a business forward. I’m glad to see a client-agency team acknowledge this point.

Keep the whole team in constant contact 

The we/them divide is one of the most enduring, and counterproductive, facts of traditional agency life.  Here, the team emphasized the need to truly be in collaborative contact and conversation. Contact helps create relationships. Relationships engender conversation and listening. Listening begets understanding. And understanding, of course, is the start of effectiveness, in any pursuit.

Get rid of the account team buffer

While Andres, the creative guy in the mix, made this point, I was heartened to hear Lianne amplify the need from the account side, specifically calling out her own AE breed and calling on it to lower the force fields and allow… no encourage and facilitate… client-creative contact in particular. How radically common-sensical. And she didn’t mean get rid of account people, but, I think, simply end the ingrained habit of keeping the creators and clients at a distance, communicating through intermediaries…and losing so much in translation.

Build trust and be really honest

Easier said than done, and fairly self-explanatory, this may be the most difficult advice to follow. Trust requires a certain level of vulnerability, as does communicating human truth. Take a risk on one, and you open the door to the other (and yes, “truth” matters, even to selling a pack of gum.)

Build high-functioning relationships with the best mix of resources

I thought that John Starkey’s use of the phrase high-functioning was very interesting. I didn’t get the chance to probe it with him further, but it seems to imply needing resources that not only supply the core expertise sought, but which can also function — and are willing to work at functioning – within a mix. After all, as Lianne followed up…

No one agency can do it all

In fact, no one holding company can do it all, at least not all that well in client terms. It’s interesting to see Energy BBDO, while not trying to “do it all,” nonetheless seeming to go its own way, bundling diverse multiple services in-house, versus always being tied to (and tying clients to) the long-time “play with he cousins first” Omnicom model.

Rally all resources around the brand as your “north star”

Ah, at last. Hints of a brand-strategy-first approach in the land where untethered creativity is king. The ad industry per se has too long been willing to lead with the “big idea” (read, hopefully award-winning TV spot) and shape the supposed brand strategy to follow. This, unfortunately, ignores the core truth that the strategy is the big idea — the creative is “just” the expression of that strategic core. (Please note: This heresy comes from a long-time creative director, writer and content creator.)  While I usually avoid the use of industry buzzwords, I was happy to hear Lianne invoke “north star,” one of the currently popular shorthand definitions of a brand, in reinforcing the primacy of core brand strategy and the essential role it serves.

Always be reshaping your resource to meet the client need
Is agility is finally migrating to the agency world as as a more efficient mode of operation, or at least attitude? I caught a significant hint of that here as Energy BBDO is clearly stepping beyond the “let’s sell them ads because that’s what we do” industry tradition to meet, and hopefully anticipate, client needs and opportunities. Lianne spoke of agencies needing multiple talents to be effective across the multiple channels clients must navigate – and I’ve noticed how Energy BBDO has taken on all sorts of titles and talents, digital, social and otherwise, that wouldn’t have been part of the staff proper even five years ago. John spoke of the client-side need to have agencies work not at their own speed, but at whatever pace the client’s marketplace requires.

Create experiences that bring consumers closer and closer to the brand

Andres shared the now-famous Extra mini-movie with Sarah and Juan as an example of how, rather than bemoan the limitations, or limited viewership, of TV spots, agencies can expand assignments in any number of directions (and lengths) to reach consumers where they live.

Apparently, the original “ask” was for a :15 TV spot; the response was a two-and-and-half minute story of a love literally unfolding from, yes, gum wrappers (it sounds silly or overreaching written flatly like that; but look for it on YouTube video download by tubemate app — it works, as my 16-year-old daughter will readily attest).

And the real expansion here wasn’t in length, but in the storytelling, and subsequently larger emotional experience, made possible by greater freedom in format.

Push the envelope on client-agency collaboration
Throughout the session, John, Lianne and Andres repeatedly returned to the notion of “extreme-in-it-togetherness” (my phrase, not theirs) that lies at the center of their relationship and their ultimate output. On one hand, I’ll have to take their word for it — the truth of collaboration is something you can’t say, but simply have to be part of to appreciate, or even believe. On the other hand, it makes sense. Traditional turf battles, us-them divides and behind-their-backs complaints about “lack of client vision” or “agency arrogance” have always hurt the end result, and pushing the envelope on true client-agency collaboration may be the only way to enhance, or even preserve, the client-agency relationship in the future.

As a marketer or agency leader, what do you see as the must-haves of the healthy client-agency relationship of the future? And what are you doing about it? (C’mon now, you’re not going to let an 80-year-old couple leave you in the dust, are you?) Please leave us your thoughts in the comments section.