10 myths about agencies from a former client

After jumping the client-agency fence to join The Monkeys from IBM, Matt Michael reflects on the myths that prevail between both sides.

 

When I decided to move agency-side after 12 years as a client working on the second-biggest brand in the world, my agency cohorts warned me that ‘advertising would be amazing if it weren’t for the clients.’

Eighteen months on, with the gasps of many clients still ringing in my ears, I am now in a position to shed some light on the ongoing passive feud between agencies and clients…

Myth #1: Agencies are more fun

The truth is, I probably had just as much fun at my old job, on the client side, in a company that more than some people would consider the yard-stick for boring, IBM.

People make fun, not companies.

Einstein’s law of relativity is at play at the agency as it is everywhere – when the agency is pushing hard, working hard, you’ll also see them blowing off steam. Agencies work hard, so they play hard.

Myth #2: Agencies are only interested in awards

The advertising industry is one of the most self-congratulatory of any. Of course, some awards get more credit than others. Clients love Effies. Lions make everyone tingle.

I think awards are like a passport stamp: a reassuring shortcut to an agency shortlist, or a way that agencies can attract the best talent.

Agencies see awards as a necessary evil because clients place some weight on them; clients like the idea of agency awards, but dislike that agencies chase them. That’s where it gets tricky. Because as long as clients place any weight on awards, agencies will continue to chase them. I also think clients want to be award winning marketers, being seen to direct and architect award-winning work.

Ultimately, it’s important for both sides to know that the best awards – those that clients value most, which deliver the biggest tingle – are won by doing good work that works hard for the client.

Whenever an agency develops a great award entry, but the work is hollow, it’s the type of ‘award-chasing’ clients despise. My feeling is agencies would rather not make hollow award entries either. They just want permission to do the good work to start with.

Myth #3: Agencies are all about lunching and boozing

When clients ask me why I switched from client to agency, I almost always say Mark Green (CEO at The Monkeys) convinced me with the promise of lunches, boozing, wild parties and endless fun. It’s a line, but they like it more than the reality (I’ll tell you why I really made the switch if you ask nicely).

Without doubt, I lunched and boondoggled more on the client side. I’m not sure where this idea that agencies spend most of their week at the pub or at lunch came from but it’s not true. Well, sort of. Yes, we spend time at the pub and lunch – but much less than the client-side frivolities.

I blame Mad Men. Personally, I am still waiting to drink scotch at the agency at 10am.

Myth #4: Agencies do not respect clients

I think clients believe this, but it is not true.

Agencies respect clients that use the agency the right way. This means involving them in the client decision-making process, using the agency for thinking power, and deriving options and paths available to the client. Agencies respect clients that work to maximise the output of the agency in quality terms, not necessarily quantity terms.

Agencies respect involvement, contribution, considered thinking and decision-making. A client who has strong self-awareness and knows their role as the leader of the combined agency-client team will walk the hallways of any agency well respected.

Myth #5: Ad Agencies mostly care about execution

Agencies are in the business of problem solving and idea generation. Spreading campaigns through channels is secondary. What matters most is the idea, not the execution.

The trouble is, presenting an idea rather than an execution requires a bit of imagination. Often, a snappy steal-o-matic sells an idea far easier than a creative director’s scamps and ramblings. The best agencies can sell their best ideas and execute them beautifully.

Myth #6: Agency people are not as smart as clients

There is a general perception among clients that agency staff are not that smart. Too few university degrees, too many pretty girls at reception.

I think there seems to be the same smarts on either side of the fence. In fact, I’d suggest those with smarts can shine brighter on the agency side: there’s more room to manoeuvre and more opportunities to stand out from the crowd.

On the other side of the fence, it is often beneficial for clients to not stand out – to keep their head down and keep moving up the chain.

I’m about to be controversial: that mentality breeds mediocrity and is pretty rampant throughout the Australian industry. Fortunately, good agencies believe in open and honest relationships with clients, where mutual respect and a shared agenda means our clients understand that it’s riskier to be safe, because brave ideas are ultimately more effective.

It takes two to tango. Agencies will always push – their weird obsession with making clients ‘uncomfortable’ still puzzles me from this side of the fence – but clients have to push too and aim for more, higher, better and more provocative ideas.

Myth #7: Agency pitch teams disappear after the pitch

I have to say this one is true, in most cases. Agencies go all out on pitches they really want. They reach out to overseas networks, they pull in specific people with specific skill sets to try and crack it. They work long and hard. And then after the pitch is done, they hire a new team and get them to work on the newly-won account.

But it’s not true everywhere – somehow our partners seem to be involved in everything. But it’s something clients should be aware of. If I was buying an agency, I’d want the guys who are doing the thinking there all along, not just a parachute team that drops in to do the pitch.

Myth #8: Agencies always want more business

As a client, I always thought this was the case but it’s not. Agencies want better business. Sometimes it is not about growing, just doing better work with better clients. Some of the biggest successes and best work comes out of the least-funded clients.

And agencies are just fine with that. We want to work with great clients who will collaborate and do great work. Good agencies value work over money and will make decisions in favour of that wherever the opportunity arises. 

Myth #9: Agency Christmas parties are crazy

Not a myth. They are. But it’s just a party. Don’t feel like you’re missing out too much.

Myth #10: Agencies start late but finish late

Agencies start early and finish late. The number of meetings that start before 8:30am is astounding and the fact that everyone sits down at 5pm to start their day is also incredible. It’s a long and heavy day. Certainly some clients and client roles require longer hours, but in general and en masse, the agency is pulling much longer days.

One thing I realise now is that as a client I probably didn’t thank my agency partners enough.  I’m sure I thanked them but I could have done it more often. (Thank you Ogilvy/Mindshare posse!)

As a combined agency/client marketing team, there is stress and there are long, consistently tough days. Being on the agency side of that team can sometimes leave you feeling unappreciated.

In this industry, we have short memories. We’re only as good as our last deliverable. Challenge, push and drive your agency, but partner, nurture and generously thank them too. They might just invite you to their Christmas party.

 

 

Matt Michael
BY Matt Michael ON 6 June 2013
Matt Michael crossed the client/agency fence in October 2011, joining The Monkeys as strategic business director. In a previous life, he headed up IBM’s Brand Strategy, Advertising and Media in Growth Markets, and earned his stripes as a marketing executive at Heineken.
  • Duncan

    Michael, a great article, thank you! I thoroughly agree with everything you say. Having witnessed life on both sides of the fence, in my experience when everyone has the shared goal of great work that delivers commercial outcomes then success is inevitable.