Pouring Ketchup on the Hand That Feeds Me

I don’t like ad agencies. (I know, I know, nobody calls them “ad agencies” anymore. But, despite this self-service witness protection program, we all know what an ad agency is, even if it calls itself an “e-business accelerator.”)

I especially don’t like big ad agencies that, by virtue of powerful brand names, have the luxury of coasting along on 125-page research reports that arrive at such startling conclusions as “We recommend that Hyperventilated Hoo-Hah.com adopt a hip, fashion-forward, cool-yet-accessible-and-not-off-putting attitude.”

For those of you who work for big ad agencies, God bless you. You know and I know that you’re far brighter and better than I. Skip this article, please, because it amounts to just so many high, sharp elbows from a man in the twilight of his mediocre career. You’ve got the Volvo account for comfort. I’ve got this article and a tiny firm of 30 freedom fighters. You win.

OK, now that those folks have left the room, it’s just you and me, Magee. I must say, Magee, you’re very polite and all, but you just had to ask, “Why would a guy who works in advertising be slamming ad agencies? And when you go a-ranting after big ad agencies, isn’t it just a case of sour grapes?”

Second question first: I’m certain that sour grapes are a factor. I catch myself, on occasions, being envious of the big accounts and the high profile that come with the big agency package. No one, at least no one like me, goes into this business to write email newsletter sponsorship copy. (Please, no more than six lines with 65 characters per line.) You want to do “big things.” Impress-the-women-and-make-the-parents-proud-and-
surprise-everyone-at-the-high-school-reunion big things.

As for why I’m slamming ad agencies from within their ranks, well, that’s pretty easy. Something’s rotten. The average client/agency relationship lasts about two years. Tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars (much of that in purchasing media) can be spent. And when these relationships break up, they do so with the (barely disguised) acrimony usually reserved for adult siblings at the Thanksgiving table. Now is this any way to outsource a critical business process?

Viewed with my Martian eye, when I look at the state of advertising, I see something that more resembles disorganized crime than a respectable profession.

And public relations firms don’t escape my arrows, either. Right now, there are PR firms “auditioning” prospective clients. Now that’s a fascinating role reversal.

We all know that the web is changing every kind of industry, making the fat places lean and the slow places fast. It’s institutionalizing a kind of perpetual restlessness and anxiety among enterprises large and small as they wonder how (or if) they can keep up with a speeding customer.

But where is the “customer gospel,” as communicated to us by the web, among ad agencies?

Now, to be clear, here’s what I’m NOT asking: How are ad agencies using the web to better serve their customers? That’s happening, in fits and starts, across the industry. For example, more and more advertising agencies are creating password-protected client extranets to enable the convenient review and revision of creative work.

No, I’m asking a more fundamental question: How are ad agencies (or clients) using the web to destroy (in the sense of “creative destruction”) traditional advertising/client relationships to find and enhance those components that are most valuable and to dispense with the rest?

Were I standing before top advertisers today, like Procter & Gamble or GM, I’d be putting them through a thought exercise. I would ask them to imagine that they had no ad agency and did not feel the need for one. How would they buy their media? How would they get their creative done? And what might they learn, in terms of advertising and marketing best practices that could create enduring value within their organizations, if they didn’t have to rely on an ad agency?

Is this imagining the unimaginable? Would this be courting corporate chaos? Let’s say that you’re a giant mass marketer spending more than $150 million per year in advertising. Is it completely beyond the realm of possibility that there might be some better way to spend $150 million to increase market share or build a brand?

In conclusion, I think it’s high time for a wake-up call in an industry that is, at present, fat and way too sassy. Clearly, with a booming economy and (even after April) plenty of venture capital floating around, there is no shortage of takers for what an ad agency might have to sell.

However, there is a shortage of imagination. Isn’t it curious that an industry renowned for creativity is or so it appears to me so uncreative in rethinking itself? Maybe it’s particularly difficult to be resourceful and imaginative in the face of rising revenues and client auditions. But, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, that’s why they call it work.

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