Our Own Worst Enemy

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Deborah Fisher



handshakeIn the “Mad Men” days, agencies won, lost and horse-traded clients and talent just like we do today, but it was a different time then. It was commonplace for an agency to be the agency of record for a brand for 20 to 30 years or more. In the case of Unilever, it has been a client of JWT’s since 1902. This is the longest living agency/client relationship, and it was formed back when JWT actually meant something and was called J. Walter Thompson. Some of the other longer-term marriages are:

  • General Electric and BBDO
  • Ford and JWT
  • Sunkist and Draft FBC (I guess Sterling Cooper & Partners lost them early on.)
  • ExxonMobil and McCann-Erickson

These are relationships that have lasted the test of time. They lived through feast, famine, love, war and the ‘80s, and still, they remained true. The above examples have also lived through consolidations, buy-outs, many, many name changes and the dreaded Y2K. Even in my early days of advertising (late ‘90s), the agency I worked for at the time had the Delta Loyalty business for 10 years or more. Life was good.

About 10 years ago I started noticing a trend. Maybe it was in my head, maybe not. It seemed as though the tenure of agency/client relationships was trending down at a rapid pace. Five years, then three to four years and now sometimes you’re lucky if you get two years out of a relationship.

As most of you know, winning a piece of business is hard enough, but winning it is only a small piece of the overall effort you put forth. The bigger effort is ramping up with a new client, making sure you have the appropriate talent on board, training, really understanding your client’s business, their needs (the ones they tell you and the ones you learn along the way) and, most importantly, the work.

If the relationship only lasts two to three years, then you only have about 18 months in the delta to prove why you won the business in the first place.

Whew! What happened, you ask? Following are my hypotheses:


The digital age came into advertising at an alarming pace. No one saw it coming. Most general agencies still don’t do digital well, meaning they haven’t learned how to incorporate it into their practice. Most, if not all, purchased a rising digital shop, and the smart ones did it early (2003/2004). This was an error perpetuated by big agencies and bigger agency egos; I assume they expected that digital would remain a tertiary channel. I’m pretty sure that’s what the radio folks thought when the up-and-comer TV hit the scene too!

Revolving CMOs

This could also be managers, directors and vice presidents of marketing. Another by-product of the digital age was a slew of uninformed, uninitiated marketers who thought, “just another medium right?” Those who didn’t hop on that train quickly were left at the station, and many didn’t know that the train wasn’t coming back. The result of this was more movement than ever on the client side. A favorite tactic of any new regime is “RFP the agency while I get my bearings.” So, you see the dilemma: marketer’s job hopping, lots of RFPs being issued in rapid fire, add in some smoke and mirrors, which results in the agency/client relationships remaining in a constant state of motion.

A Guy and a Laptop

No real explanation needed here. Anyone with a laptop now believes that he or she is an “agency.” All I can say about this is God bless the guy and his laptop. America was founded on your moxie, so more power to you. To clients I say: Buyers beware. All laptops are not created equal.

Most agencies provide full-suite services with deep levels of talent in business planning and strategy, creative development and execution, process management and workflow, production and more. We’ve kept the details from you for the most part, which is where we deserve the blame. We haven’t shared the “costs” with you. Digital didn’t make things easier; it made things better. Technology is hard, and it’s not free.

Price Wars and Undercutting

Everyone I know who works for an agency is competitive. We love to win. We stay in agencies to beat our own best time, but the competition is what keeps us here for more hours and less pay. We have to win! We also like to beat other agencies out of their business.

We used to be able to win on strategy, creative or an inside track. Today, we all lose on price. The phenomena that is “a guy and a laptop” and the fact that “digital is free” has turned us all into undercutting machines. We know when we sell a piece of business that we’ll lose money on it. Most of the time we do it anyway. Gotta keep the lights on, right? The effect of this practice has diluted the service, levels of talent, creativity, love of the work for clients and their business. I for one miss the days when all I thought was, “If I don’t accomplish this, Delta won’t be able to fly planes.”

The Coup

Wouldn’t it be interesting if agencies banded together? Not like a WPP or Omnicom conglomerate, but if we stood up for ourselves, our products and our value to brands — together. What if we said no to the unreasonable rates we are forced to accept because XYZ Agency will do it for less? What if we fired clients when they were unreasonable and unwilling to understand that we are in business to make money too? Our world might change a bit. Don’t you think?

Agencies are their own worst enemy because we’ve lost our self-esteem. I’m not quite ready to pull a Don Draper and tell a client that he or she isn’t sophisticated or smart enough to have us work for them. But, we could certainly put a bit of swagger back in our steps and stop allowing ourselves to be victims of the monster we built with our own creative hands.

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