Mike Fromowitz
Jul 10, 2013

Are agencies producing ideas of any real value?

I’m seeing more really “stupid” advertising these days. In our instant gratification-based society those who deliver first don’t necessarily deliver the best solutions. 

Are agencies producing ideas of any real value?

Take, for example, some really ridiculous new agency start-ups like the self-proclaimed World’s Fastest Agency (WFA) promising to take just 24 hours to transform your 140-character creative brief—delivered via Twitter—into a pitch sent back to you via Twitter direct message provided you pay $999 up front.

A great advertising idea isn’t often an instantaneous thing. Really good ideas come from excellent planning and communications strategy; from taking the time to get to know a client and the market the client operates in.  And if you don’t take the time to get to know the company and its market, more often than not, your work ends up missing the mark.

Little wonder then that John Hegarty of BBH recently declared, "We have a major problem in that our work isn't as good as it used to be, and consumers value it less and less - that's the first thing we have to address. Our solution to the problem is to constantly think how we can interrupt consumers more, how we can trip them up, how we can shove a message in their face that they don't want to see."

Spend a few hours on the Internet or in front of your TV set and you will find advertising campaigns that are lame and in poor taste, and at its worst, offensive and harmful. The agencies that create this stuff should be sent packing.

But ad agencies are not the only ones at fault for the bad advertising we see. If the journey goes off track, it is not always the fault of the ad agency. Clients play an active role in defining and approving strategies and creativity too.

Are there ways to prevent your clients from acting on self-defeating impulses and faulty thinking?

Ads are presented and approved by clients. So in reality, they make the final decision on how they wish to be presented to the marketplace. But from many of the silly ads I’m seeing these days on TV, the Internet, outdoor and in print, I’m beginning to wonder: “Is everybody losing it?”

Clients can be their own worst enemies

Clients come to advertising agencies for their advice and communications abilities, then they tell them what the strategy and creative should be. I can appreciate one critical thing: in some cases the client probably knows their target audience a lot better than ad agencies do. Ad agencies have long ago given away their hold on “understanding the target market”. They did the same when Media walked out the door. Media agencies seem to have a far better knowledge of the consumer today than agencies do.

What good is accepting a marketing strategy from a client who overestimates their own advertising knowledge and think they know more than the ad agency? If ad agencies could have that kind of conversation with clients, both would benefit. Perhaps if ad agencies presented their clients with both creative work and some science and logic behind the work, more good work could be sold.

A huge part of an ad agency’s responsibility is to give clients what they need—not necessarily what they want. The other is to make sure that it makes sense. Our clients hire us because they need someone to assist them in making better and more educated decisions based on our expertise and professional know-how. Given the advertising I'm seeing these days, I have my doubts that agencies are doing just that today. The work is looking stupid and silly. Much of it doesn't make any sense.

Agencies can be their own worst enemies

When we first pitch a client for their business, most of them tell us what they want to see in their communications - they have preconceived notions of what they want, but that doesn't mean they know what they need. If they were getting what they 'needed', they wouldn't be asking for agencies to pitch them with new ideas. At the same time, there doesn't seem to be a process to really evaluate what it is that clients need, and why they’re not receiving it now. So, we craft an offering that we think clients will like, and then try to convince them to hire us to receive it. But is that really the best way to build a business’s service offering?

I think it’s a striking point that many ad agencies, in the process of developing a service for their clients, rarely take the most fundamental first step: doing their own planning and market research to figure out what their clients actually need. It is a fact that many clients believe the ad agency’s job is to lock themselves in a room (with the client’s research) and dream up what people want, and take that dream out to the marketplace as if it the clients own market research was clad in stone.

Not all research today provides unique insights that can lead to great communication ideas. Their assumption—which agencies don’t seem to be challenging—is that it will be just as effective with the client’s market research than it would be with the ad agency’s own research findings.

There’s a much more fundamental issue about how some ad agencies are built. Many tend to create their business as a reflection of themselves and what they would want, rather than a business-oriented endeavor to determine what the clients want, and deliver it to them.

Perhaps it’s part of the nature of being in the ad agency, which is, after all, an advice-giving business. We seem to have a need to explain to our clients why our advice is right, and although we may work hard at hearing our clients express themselves about their own challenges, goals and concerns, we are not nearly as effective at listening to constructive criticism about our own businesses and the services we offer.

Letting clients know when their idea does not make sense is of key importance. By not addressing any potential issues will ultimately have a negative impact on the outcome of the overall campaign. If it doesn’t feel right, then it just isn’t.

A big part of helping them understand is to be prepared with an alternative that will blend their idea with a logical solution. In other words, find alternatives that work. Most clients will keep an open mind and consider suggestions proposed by a professional. After all, that’s why they hire us in the first place.

It’s much easier to make suggestions if we understand our clients’ needs and their ultimate goal from the start. This requires asking many questions from the get go. And not believing that your client will think you stupid for asking them. Clients will respect you more when your advice is prudent, and most importantly, for being open and honest.

Are agency ideas of any value to clients?

Thinking about this makes me wonder how often we present ideas to clients that are not of any real value to them. When I look around at all the terrible work I see coming out of many agencies, perhaps it’s because they have a very poor perspective on what it’s like to BE a marketing client, since, remarkably, so few of us every actually become consumers of the products and services we sell. Little wonder then that we may not really understand what is and is not most important from the client’s perspective.

When a client asks for something different in the process with you, do you view their “suggestions” as an opportunity to create a better campaign or provide them with a service or idea you haven’t offered up yet? And if you did the latter, what is it that makes it the “right” way to do it in the first place? Just because it’s always been done that way or that everyone else does it in the same undifferentiated way, doesn’t make it right, does it?

Now consider this: Is your ad agency created in your own image, or was it truly created for the wants and needs of your clients? Have you ever done any of your own market research to determine what your target clients say they want, as opposed to simply delivering them what you think they need. And do you have any way to differentiate between the two?


Mike Fromowitz



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