The Ad Agency in the Age of Velocity

Let’s begin with a modest proposal: Kill all advertising agency account executives. Just kidding, of course! You know, as a mouth-breathing, take-no-prisoners, broadsword-wielding, thoroughly uncouth “creative,” I just love you guys to pieces.

But I have been thinking about the role of ad agency account service in this era of business velocity, when a company’s time-to-marketing is almost as determinative of success as its products’ time-to-market.

The structure of traditional agencies with account service folks serving as a conduit (or a buffer) between agency creatives and customers is simply not built for speed. Within our own firm (and, yes, we value our account service folks), I often make the joke that the project will be finished by the time the meeting’s recap notes and creative brief are completed.

It’s not a ha-ha kind of joke. For the lion’s share of more than 150 projects for our agency’s largest customer (a recognized global leader in enabling profitable e-business), there have been no meeting recap notes or creative briefs. And I, as creative director, have served as the customer’s lead account executive, as well as writing copy and generating concepts for their projects.

Had you asked me some two years ago before we began working for this customer if this “model” would have appealed to me, I would have answered with a resounding “No!” (I am, by nature, a recluse and require many hours of “cave time.”)

But something happened. I went to one or two meetings, which became ten meetings, and my natural curiosity about what this company was up to kicked in. As we began working more closely together, something else happened. Project turnaround became much faster. And there were far fewer rounds of revisions.

(Now, if it seems that I, alone, was managing all kinds of heroics on this account’s behalf, let me quickly dispel that notion. I work with an amazing team, including great creatives and a long-suffering, extraordinarily able project manager.)

But this article is not about me or about us. It’s about getting work done faster and (I think) better.

When you get right down to it, an agency’s creative work consists (usually) of three components: concepts, copy, and designs. What if an “owner” of one or two of those areas were deployed to the front end of the agency relationship to work directly with a customer? In my opinion, the resulting work would almost have to be more quickly produced and of higher quality.

So why aren’t agencies doing this? They are. (More on that in a moment.)

In traditional agencies, creatives (you know, the mouth-breathing, take-no-prisoners, broadsword-wielding, thoroughly uncouth creatives) are hidden away from customers. Oh sure, there will be the perfunctory tour of the “factory floor.” But, generally speaking, there isn’t a great deal of bonding that goes on between creatives and customers. I think this separation, or, more aptly, this mediation isn’t very helpful. It treats creatives like “hothouse flowers,” isolated from business concerns. Plus, it insulates customers from the “emotional logic” of creative thinking a logic that many would be wise to obey in their marketing communications.

I was once told by a pretty darn good account executive that “clients like having people who look, act and dress like them, sitting across the table.” And that is certainly a fact of human nature. But is it good for business? I think the best ideas come, not from “unfettered and alive” thinking, but from the presence of constraints and parameters. Friction will happen between customer types and creative types. But, from that friction, something better than either could have imagined in isolation will emerge.

And it will emerge faster.

This idea of liberally mixing creatives and customers is, however, a dangerous one. I suggest both the agency and the customer go into such active collaborations with eyes wide open.

If, as a customer, you feel comfy during your first or second meeting, I can tell you something’s wrong. You are probably being savaged and satirized behind closed doors. (Despite my earlier references to broadswords and taking no prisoners, creatives are usually passive-aggressive personalities who grin in your face and then burn you in effigy.)

The creatives are playing at obeisance because they think that’s what’s expected of them in meetings with customers. If there’s been no vulgarity (or even a hint of it) during the first couple of meetings, that, too, is a bad sign. The real work of creativity has little, lusty, romping, rapacious demons at its threshold, much like the “dark side” of a medieval church’s tympanum.

So you’ve been warned. But do proceed nonetheless.

Now, against this background, read this quote (about Y & R’s agency within an agency) from a recent issue of Fast Company: “In a world that demands fast decision making, the traditional account-team-as-conduit structure has become burdensome. The solution: Assign each client a “navigator” an agency staffer who makes sure that work gets done right but who doesn’t serve as an intermediary or filter.”

I would add only that, in order to save even more time, this “navigator” MUST be an owner of one or more aspects (i.e., concept, copy, design) of a given creative project.

Account service and account planning folks, feel free to show me the error of my ways at cmaher@m2k.com.

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