More ideas and less process
Paul Banks on why ideas must be foremost in brand differentiation
The agency of the future should be defined by the marketing rules we preach and by the needs of our clients, not by the capabilities of an agency. One top agency, which employs a large in-house creative team, made a lot of noise about the old style and out-dated agency model using in-house creatives.
Their proposition was that the best creatives and the freshest ideas came from using freelances who were creatively hungry and would produce mould-breaking work. The argument was interesting, if not entirely convincing.
The agency owners were obviously not completely convinced of their claim as they realised that above a certain workload it is financially prohibitive and managerially uncontrollable to outsource all creative work. So the agency of the future was more to do with what suited that agency at the time, rather than helping the client. But every agency needs a yarn and it worked for them, so good luck to them. It brings to mind the maxim: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.
The agency of the future should be defined by client needs. Clients need good strategy and projects must be administered well, but what they really need from agencies is ideas. Clients can administer as well as agencies. It is arguable that clients can strategise better than agencies. Many prefer to manage their own data in-house. There is also a trend towards clients buying their own print and some like to source their own widgets.
Agencies have always been better than clients at producing ideas which bring a strategy to life. It could be a pack design for a new product, a promotional idea that earns lots of trial, a PR stroke that excites the media, an ad that causes consumers to stop and act, or a web concept with viral potential.
So, the best agency should be the one that consistently produces the best ideas. If that is true, how are we shaping up as an industry? One way to tell is to look at how the industry is rewarding agencies.
Reward shapes behaviour. If a salesman is to sell more, we reward him for achieving targets. The service level in US restaurants is better than average because of ‘tips’, an ultimate example of reward shaping behaviour. So, if the ideas are what clients need how are agencies being rewarded? The sad truth is that agencies are not being rewarded for ideas, but rather for the time that they work on a project.
The logical consequence of this is for agencies to work 100-hour weeks and not to worry too much about ideas. In essence, there is a mismatch between what clients need from agencies and the reward structure.
Responsibility for this has been with the procurement department of clients with no background in the matter. It is easier to reward agencies for their time than it is for their ideas, but we need to find a way.
If clients need agencies to produce great ideas then they must be rewarded and not just for the time it takes to develop or implement them.
Is size is the enemy of creativity? Big implies structure, instead of flexibility. Big requires process led, instead of idea led. Numbers and not the work are often king for the big international networks.
One stop shop/integrated agency/above the line/below the line and all that jazz. But the answer to the perfect agency has little to do with these definitions. The answer lies in the agency with the best ideas.
Not ideas in a vacuum, but the best ideas that build the client business. In a Utopian world, one agency would execute this idea across all disciplines. But this assumes that one agency has the best people in all disciplines.
Even if it were possible, the number and quality of the various divisions of an agency is secondary to the ability to produce the best idea. A reasonable idea brilliantly executed is still only a reasonable idea. Most below the line agencies have more over-educated ‘suits’ than they do ideas people. The traditional agencies employ advertising-obsessed creatives where the show reel and not the sales-driven idea is the priority. Some agencies are looking to places like South Africa for creative talent where word-of-mouth is as strong in building a brand as advertising. So the creatives are more in tune with SMS and online media and less so with TV.
The ubiquitous brainstorm is still the norm. Sit in the same room every day with the same four walls and expect to produce original ideas. If the idea is king, then all we do must be designed towards that end. Fresh stimulus, unusual and interesting surroundings, new people, strange experiences are the stuff of originality. The “anyone got any ideas?” at the 4pm brainstorm is not the way forward.
There is a danger that if agencies are paid for their time instead of their ideas all agencies will merge into the same homogeneous time-recording machines. What clients need are compelling ideas which help to differentiate their brands from low-price offerings and private label.
It is the clients which need their agencies to be idea-focused that are putting pressure on them to be more process-driven. If the agencies are undifferentiated, then the campaign will develop sameness too. The antidote is to make the work king.
Paul Banks is managing director of Banks Love Marketing Communications
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