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Down Economy? Common Sense Rules!

  |  February 2, 2009   |  Comments

Ten tips on how digital agencies can use common sense to ride out the downturn, plus three lessons from the 2001 crash.

With the economy in the midst of one of the biggest death spirals in decades and ad spending on the way down, a lot of us are scrambling to stay afloat. Even if the bad news hasn't hit your company yet, you're probably laying awake at night worrying about when it will and how it will affect you. There's no doubt about it: times are tough. The question now is what to do.

It's easy to panic and think about stocking up on beef jerky and heading for the hills, but for most agencies that isn't an option. There's no reason to panic, however. It's not like bad things haven't happened to our industry before. Remember 2001? Instead of throwing up our hands, we ought to look at what we've learned before.

Of course today's downturn isn't the same as 2001's dot-bomb explosion. The reasons are different, the scope is larger, and the outlook bleaker. Even so, what worked to keep companies afloat back then can be extrapolated to what's going to work today: common sense.

Yup, I know that's not too popular a term. It's tough to define and even tougher to come to a consensus about what it means in practice. Besides, it's not exactly buzz-worthy, to use a term your parents and grandparents used to bandy about. But so what? It works.

Common sense is really about turning to the fundamentals. It's about time-tested ways of thinking about how we work. It's about ditching arrogance and that all-too-pervasive feeling that things are different. It means listening to your gut, getting back to basics, and doing the hard work. Most of all, common sense means not believing the hype.

Boring, right? Not really, unless you think that making money and keeping your job and keeping your clients happy are boring. There's nothing wrong with innovation. After all, it's the one thing that will get us out of this mess. But there's something wrong with doing things differently just for the sake of doing them if those things don't serve the bottom line.

If we look back to the 2001 crash, there are three main lessons we can learn:

  • Technology changes quickly, people change slowly. Adoption takes time. Don't mistake industry hype for reality. A big reason for most dot-com failures is the startups blew through their money too quickly. They expected their product or service would be adopted immediately and they'd start recouping the money they were blowing on advertising.

  • We're in a people business. Technology is only important in relation to how people use it. What really matters is relationships. Not serving clients comes back to bite you every time.

  • Fundamentals matter. Value matters. Return on investment matters. Accountability matters. When things go south, people want to see that they aren't wasting their money. While a rising economy can absorb a lot of experimenting and fuzzy metrics, when money's flowing out the door faster than it's coming in, people want to know where their money is going and how it's going to positively affect revenue.

Duh, right? You'd think this wouldn't be news to anyone. Yet as we look back on the last several years, it's easy to see how many of these lessons were forgotten. Many of the current (and future) casualties in the online community are those who forgot these lessons. They may have been shielded from the rocks while the tide was lifting all boats, but when it goes out they'll be wrecked.

So what can you do now? Here are a few ideas about how to use common sense to ride out the downturn:

  • ROI (define) rules. Overall, the best thing you can do is add value to your clients' businesses. And I don't mean fuzzy-wuzzy, feel-good value. I mean hardcore, bring-more-cash-in-the-door value. Measurable value. ROI value. Sure, it's no fun to have to be measured by hard numbers, but as soon as budgets shrink clients look at what's getting them results and what's not. If you can't prove value, you're toast.

  • Don't believe the hype. Though words of wisdom from Mr. Flavor Flav might be suspect, there's probably no better mantra to live by these days. You aren't your target market. Neither is the industry press (for the most part). Just because all your ad buddies are jacked up about something doesn't mean anyone else cares. If you find yourself struggling to justify something to a client without resorting to terms like "paradigm shift" or having a hard time explaining how you'll measure the success of your idea without resorting to vague references to "mindshare," you probably should reconsider what you're doing.

  • If you don't know exactly why you should do something, don't do it. Probably the best example of this today has been the overhyping of social media. If your experience is like mine (and I can't believe it's that far off), you've probably had clients coming to you for the last year or so wild-eyed about getting into social media. They want Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and blogs because that's where the action is. For the most part, I've found that if you start asking them practical questions about how they'll maintain these presences, how comfortable they are with living by the rules of social media (such as not having a cow over people being able to -- horrors! -- post comments), and how it fits into their larger strategy, we usually end up at a saner place with strategic value. They still might spend the dough to do what they wanted to, but now at least they know how to do it.

  • Add value to your client relationships. Remember service? Remember things like returning phone calls, answering e-mails, and providing value to justify your existence? I can't tell you how many prospects have been calling me in the last couple of months because they're sick of working with agencies where they get shuffled around, ignored, or gouged. If you're not providing value to the relationship, you're toast. Just being there isn't enough.

  • Check in. Ask your clients how they're doing. Offer to measure your value to your client. They'll be amazed that you're thinking about their bottom line and that you're confident enough in your own value to be able to prove it to them. It's not enough to be cool if you're overpriced and unresponsive, as Federated Media is finding out.

  • Smaller is better. Big usually means top heavy, and top heavy means expensive. Being small and nimble and providing access to top talent is a lot more attractive to clients and potential clients on a budget than being big and expensive. Look for smaller operators to be a trend in the coming months: with all the layoffs out there, we're sure to see a lot of shingles thrown up by laid-off professionals using the opportunity to strike out on their own.

  • Stand out. Take a point of view. The most valuable lesson I learned when it came to landing new business is that taking a point of view about your potential client's problems at the proposal stage is best way to get hired -- or not. If you show your chops when most people are trying to be diplomatic or lack confidence, you'll stand out from the competition and you'll get clients that think like you do. And they're always the best ones to have.

  • Do more. I know, I know. We're all ridiculously busy, especially as times get leaner. But doing more than the other company, going that extra mile, throwing in a little (as the Creoles call it) lagniappe (define) will make you stand out and be more valuable. It's easy to get complacent and reuse documents, rely too heavily on boilerplates, recycle media plans, and turn to the same old strategies when things are good. When they're not, make sure you institute a "no boilerplate!" rule to force yourself to do more. You'll be glad you did.

  • Manage your reputation. Make sure you consistently deliver what you promised and maintain a list of killer references by doing consistently good work. Ask your most satisfied customers for testimonials. Respond to bad press immediately. Work for good press. Make sure people know what you're doing and (this is the most important part) how it could be good for them.

  • Give it away. Yes, this sounds counterintuitive when times are tough, but giving away your expertise in smart ways can yield big benefits. Write whitepapers. Provide advice to local nonprofits (their boards are often populated with decision makers). Do some pro bono jobs to show off the creative skills that your newly conservative clients may not be willing to try. Give seminars to educate potential clients about online marketing. Help out people who are looking for jobs (if they're not idiots) by giving them leads or using your knowledge of the biz to point them in the right direction. You never know: the person you help today might be calling to hire your agency tomorrow.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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