Digital Agencies Today Are Running Scared And Inefficient

Scene: Client briefs Agency, “We want Facebook fans. Go get us some.”  Agency to Client, “Absolutely, Social is so in right now. Brilliant.”

Agencies are doing a disservice to themselves and their clients by being Yes Men and Chicken Littles. I’ve sat in meetings where the Account Director mutes the line to comment on a client-directed strategy that actually makes sense. If only that AD unmuted the line and told the client.  Agencies feel the need to either wholeheartedly agree with client ideas that they know are ridiculous or freak out over the most minuscule of issues. How did we get here?

The aspirational vision of an agency looks something like a scene out of Mad Men. A Don Draper figurehead looking a client dead in the eye and telling the client its idea on how to position his Beans or Coat Company is wrong. Don Draper had liquid courage to help those discussions, but it’s something missing from the agency today. Agencies are worried about the short-term gain of telling a client ‘yes’ rather than the long-term goal of telling a client ‘no.’ Saying no can potentially save a client money and maintain trust.

What if an agency said, “Don’t make that app that lets you upload a picture of your dog. How about we do this instead…” Agencies are afraid of advising a client that turns out to be wrong. Ultimately, an agency ends up taking a client’s money without the responsibility since it wasn’t their idea. Stop spending money for the sake of spending money and paying for things you shouldn’t. Clients are now asking the questions that agencies should have asked years ago, “Why are we paying for impressions never seen? Why don’t the fans we’ve bought talk about us?”  The $100k an agency took for a brief they didn’t think would work is the reason the agency lost out on additional budgets and briefs for the rest of the client-agency relationship.

Agencies have become inefficient with archaic internal processes. A client wants a ‘quick’ change to a media schedule? Great – takes the agency a full working day to turn it around.  Agencies not only have outdated internal processes, but more and more layers and departments than ever before.  Saying yes too much causes much of this. A client wants to add a mobile element to their media strategy.  Instead of an agency telling the client it’s out of their remit, they go ahead and build out a team that executes poorly. Agencies have gotten away from the consulting relationship they once had with clients and are now inefficient doers.

How do we stop becoming the doers? Outsource everything but the brains. Keep it lean. Brands are playing this game of taking Media in-house, then offloading back to an agency, and then taking it back again. Don’t play that game – just give it to them.  Agencies value should not be in the tasks, it should be in the insights and vision that the client cannot see from being drunk off their own Kool-Aid.  There’s a growing trend of startups stealing the raw talent from the agencies. Agencies will not compete against startups if they only offer jobs that can be executed by the half-witted when the smart, youthful talent wants to utilize their brain.

It might sound like I’m bashing Agencies, but I truly believe in Agencies. I started my career at an agency. I am concerned with the current state of the Digital Agency. There’s a lack of identity now – agencies are identifying themselves as technology companies, trading desks, performance buyers, API partners, etc.  Agencies are trying to be more like startups, however startups have a less than 20% success rate. Don’t mimic the anomaly. Avoid being the rule. The rule is that most will fail so avoid being one of them.  Build a proposition that refocuses the agency back to its roots because more than likely it will not be the next Instagram or Facebook.

  • Dan Gershenson

    Somehow, people who say “the client is always right” take that to mean that the client can never be disagreed with. That’s total crap. It’s highly unlikely you are ever going to be respected and referred business if you are not able to express your expertise to people who do not have that expertise. Sorry, are they not paying you to have an opinion on how to help their business along with that talent? That doesn’t mean you have to “win” all the time either, but able to say “Actually, I’m not sure if that is the best approach based on the goals you’ve communicated.” If they don’t agree, so be it. But at least I had the opportunity to bring it up. Yet I have seen a few fear-driven account people’s faces go pale in that instance when all we’re often doing is trying to be thoughtful about our direction and not in any way disrespectful. Look, we can be in the order taking business or we can be consultative as you’ve said very well here. I have found that the latter is not only much more fulfilling to my career but it is invariably the right position to take for the brand’s best interests. And our agency’s too.

    • Jayne Pimentel

      absolutely – you hit it on the head with your last point about career fulfillment as well as brand’s best interest

  • Lee Doyle

    “How about we do this instead . . . and here’s why it’s a better solution . . .” I agree if we could say those two things more often, we would all be in better shape. But too often, people don’t seem to have even thought about what a better solution might be or can’t articulate why it’s better. We need to stop an think a little more.