Searching for (agency) love

Former CPG marketer John Bradley on what clients are doing wrong when it comes to finding a new shop.

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In the 13 years since I last occupied the marketing department corner office, you’d think that everything would have changed.

Some of it has. You could engrave what I know about native advertising on the head of a pin. And only last week I had to ask someone to explain behavioural economics to me (they confirmed my initial diagnosis of mostly utter bollocks as far as we are concerned).

Some of it long-forgotten techniques that rose Lazarus-like from the marketing cemetery. My alma mater, Cadbury U.K., churned out prodigious quantities of branded content in the 1950s before the 30-second commercial put paid to all that.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, some of it hasn’t changed at all.

This was brought home to me recently when I was engaged by the Institute of Communication Agencies to update its “Best Practice in Agency Search & Selection” guide.

During my research phase, it became increasingly apparent someone had reset my watch to 2003, if not 1985 – the year I first experienced a full-blown agency search back in the U.K.

(Incidentally, this was one of the three agency searches I experienced in my 24-year corporate career, which feels about right to me. If your batting average is a lot higher, you may wish to consider the possibility that you are part of the problem.)

Coming from the client side, I wasn’t really surprised at seeing plenty of familiar agency new business search behaviours. While agency models, skillsets and structures have changed quite dramatically, agencies have always had shark DNA – if they aren’t forever moving forward, voraciously consuming new business as they go, they die.

So to see shoals of agencies pitching for every scrap of new business they scent, to read the winner’s same valedictorian PR announcements, and to hear the losers’ same pleading for any crumb of feedback, was to be expected.

More interesting, to me at least, was to see the perspective from the other side of the hill. The list of beefs from agencies about clients appeared as timeless as that shark-like behaviour.

The issues fell neatly into two discrete sections:

Communication:

Unclear feedback from the client through the process

Undisclosed mandate, size or scope of assignment

Unclear list of decision-makers

Lack of exposure/access to clients

Unclear decision criteria/disclosure of trigger/main motivation

Changing decision criteria

Process:

Deliverables expectations disproportionately high

The result had already been pre-determined

Demands to forfeit IP ownership of pitch materials

Cost reduction being the primary (undisclosed) driver of the pitch

Throughout the process of researching and writing the guide, I kept asking myself: “Why-oh-why have clients failed to become more professional and proficient in this area?”

The answer became increasingly clear to me — we marketers also have our own instinctive behaviour that flows from the very DNA of the role; while we are experts in understanding consumers and delivering the products/services they desire, we are generalists.

On my first day in the job as an assistant brand manager, my boss told me, “Best thing about marketing is it’s something different every 20 minutes.”

And he was right. However, this manifests itself in a profound reluctance and/or inability to knuckle down to extremely long, arduous and time-consuming tasks, such as a professionally-run agency search.

This insight drove the structure of my final guide (which is aimed entirely at clients). Fully one-third of it is on how clients could avoid the process altogether by fixing their current relationship or, failing that, how to determine with absolute clarity what it is they will actually be looking for before they even think of hitting the G&T circuit.

While not in the guide, my advice to agencies is to grow a pair.

If it’s a crap process, they will most probably be a crap client who will make you no money nor win you any awards, all the while sapping the morale of your staff. There are only so many rusting oil-cans and lengths of old fishing line a shark can eat before it dies anyway.

JBJohn Bradley is a former VP, marketing for Cadbury and now an author and judging coordinator for the CASSIES.

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