Tim West
Sep 18, 2019

Modern dating in adland

The industry seems to have gone the way of modern dating apps, with little interaction, one night stands and no eye for long-term relationships. Can that be remedied?

Modern dating in adland

Remember the good ole’ days when relationships were simple? There were basic rules and things called "courting" and "committed." It was a similar scene in ad land.

When I entered the business (a long time ago in a faraway land) the average agency relationship was seven years. Today, as most of the industry knows, that number has been cut by more than half, largely due to a shift towards project-based work and away from the AOR model. Taking the proper time to find the right partner and building on that relationship have gone the way of swipe right.

As more and more clients have opted to turn to a multi-agency project distribution instead of the solid AOR relationship, the industry psyche is trying to adjust.  In an industry that toggles between big egos and self-worth depending on the day, the one-night-stands and unlimited agencies can be emotionally draining.

Brands are trying to figure out this new dating landscape as well. You can tell by the varied models of RFPs that brands aren’t sure what they want in a relationship.  They request "big" agencies that are also "boutique/social" and a "PR shop" and "content shop". They’re looking for a full-service quarterback with other some agencies on the side. Dating research has found that the characteristics people say they find attractive in theory does not usually match up to whom they become romantically interested. Sound familiar?

I still believe in the AOR model where love is earned through trial and tribulation. CMOs and brands need partners because project work acts a good band-aid, but many times not the best cure. When agencies are empowered and trusted, they do their best work and everyone grows, smart strategies are created and market changing ideas happen.

Agencies are expected to staff with the best people for the client, but on-and-off projects make retaining the best people impossible, creating increasing problems for agencies and their clients. There’s a statement that has been tossed around the advertising industry for decades—clients get the advertising they deserve. It sounds negative, but there is a lot of truth in there.

The chastity belts of procurement and consultancies make it hard to build any bond with CMOs. In a recent example of this terrible trend, my agency just received an RFP that takes the Tinder model of agency search to a whole new level, asking for no human contact: 1) Email questions. 2) Do spec work. 3) Email the spec work. It might look streamlined but gone are the phone calls and meetings allowing us to get to know each other and get a chemistry check for the client and the agency. I can tell you right now, we are ghosting, unfriending and blocking that one. It’s just not going to work out.

But in the end, it is the ad industry’s job to earn the trust of brands. I should hope that most brands like most people still genuinely hope that a first date turns into a relationship. You can lean toward optimism as the online dating service, Match reports that 25 percent of one-night-stands turn into a relationship. So, that means when the project dawns your doorstep don’t be in your bathrobe. Be ready, work the conversation, get to know your potential partners needs and think glass-half-full. You may have to work a bit harder and a bit out-of-scope to get that spark but relationships can grow fast.

Brands, we’re just asking for a little faith, and a chance to prove you wise. When you set out on a search, remember that you’ll likely get what you are looking for – so don’t let a wham bam mentality burn your chances at finding a trusted partner. I would like to think that optimism will return to ad land and that once again when brands start looking, they will go into it thinking – this may be THE one, the agency of my dreams, the perfect partner. We will celebrate victories together, crush the competitors and take long walks on the beach.

Tim Smith is the president of Chemistry, a US agency with offices in Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

Campaign US

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