May 21, 2015

The Clients Have Won

I've been traveling this week and busy with other duties. Consequently haven't had time to keep up with my blogging obligations. However, I know some of you need something motivational to get you through your morning toiletry duties, so here's something from 5 years ago. More true today.

Since I started in the agency business back in 1776, I've been aware of a subtle but undeniable tension between clients and agencies over who would control the culture of advertising.

Because the agencies make the advertising, they feel they should control the ethos. Because the clients pay for the advertising, they feel they should control it. Nobody ever comes out and actually says these things, but the strain below the surface has always been pretty obvious to anyone who wanted to see it.

I've always felt it was a healthy tension. The industry needs both the imagination of the agencies and the real-world pragmatism of the clients. The pendulum is never at rest and it is always swinging back and forth giving a little more or a little less influence to each party.  For the most part, however, it has remained within a range in which each party has had a reasonable share of power in determining what the ad industry is, and what it isn't.

I am now starting to feel that the competition is coming to an end and that the clients have won. There are three factors that make me feel this way.

The first is size. Size affects culture. Large entities tend to behave differently from small ones. As agencies have grown to global proportions to match the needs of global clients, agency cultures have undeniably changed to resemble the cultures of the clients. I don't think this has been done consciously. I think it's just a by-product of size.

The tangible manifestations of this are the development of internal hierarchies, the compartmentalization of  functions, and the inflation of titles (is there anyone left who isn't a C-Something-O?) Because the intangible manifestations are less, um, tangible, they are harder to describe. But anyone who's spent some time in the agency world will, I believe, agree that internal agency behaviors and attitudes have a different feel in recent years.

The second factor is people. With the exception of the creative department, it would be hard these days to pick agency people out of an agency-client line-up. They look, talk and act the same. This is not a criticism of either side, it's just an observation.

As for the creative people, they still have bad haircuts and unnecessarily expensive eye wear, but I've been reading lately that we are losing some of our best and brightest to, among other things, the lure of new media. This is alarming. A while ago, in a past post entitled  Crisis of Advertising, I wrote something like this...

Put yourself in the place of a young, talented person. You can work for a big, clumsy ad agency that is toiling for huge corporations.  You'll have dozens of meddlers sticking their sweaty fingers into everything you do. Or you can work for yourself, or a smaller entity, where you don't just use your imagination to sell things, you use it to actually create things.
Our clients may think they need us for our dashboards and our analytics, but the only thing they really need us for is creativity. If we can't deliver that, we may as well close up shop.

The third factor is focus. Agencies seem not as singularly focused on the advertising part of the advertising business as they once were. Each day there seem to be new priorities and different disciplines that closely mirror client-side functions. This has not been helped by the obsession with technology and data.

Agency leaders may be crazy, but they're not stupid. In a time of enormous change and uncertainty, they can see what the winners look like and what the losers look like. The winners look more and more like their clients. The losers look more and more like ad agencies.

In logic, there is something called the fallacy of composition. The fallacy of composition occurs when it is mistakenly assumed that what is good for the individual is good for the group. For example, it is good for the individual to save his paycheck. But if everyone saved their paychecks, our economy would collapse.

It is probably good for the survival of each individual agency if it yields to the pressure to mirror the values and behaviors of its clients.

However, it is terrible for the industry.


Cecil B. DeMille said...

"Make them happy," has been the refrain for many asinine changes to creative work. My question has always been this: What will make them most happy, changing the work or selling the product? If the answer is the latter, LEAVE THE FUCKING WORK ALONE.

I am aghast on a daily basis at how some of my clients will pay my hourly rate only to change what I write into elementary-school gobbledygook plus their droll list of RTBs thrown in as "snackable content." It makes every single piece look and sound the same. Consumers aren't idiots. They're smarter than the client, and they can see when you've got nothing to say. The resulting work is disastrously indistinct, and I raise all kinds of Hell about it.

"Make them happy." Fucking ad business. We've bent over so long we think the floor is up.

Matthew Ray Scott said...

Mr. Hoffman, I just downloaded your new book. I CONSUME your insight and try and implement some of your great ideas in our small and growing agency with our physician clients. A recent client wanted to spend money on a pay per click campaign - we suggested otherwise & created this outdoor advertising piece (he's glad he listened) -

Neil said...

I ordered the book by clicking the link in this e-mail so that hopefully Bob gets additional affiliate revenue that he can attribute to his blog, a digital marketing channel. Haha!

Neil said...

I mean, click the link in this post. If only I wasn't so quick in my glee.

Matthew Ray Scott said...

I read your book in one sitting. It made me question my own bullshit in advertising and branding. Advertising is like exercise - an especially insightful chapter. After reading your posts and your books, I'm armed with new insight that challenge my old assumptions.

Hope you re enjoying this Memorial Day holiday.