Archive for the ‘The Client-Agency Marriage’ Category

It’s looking like branding as we come out of the recession is still not for the faint of heart or weak of bowels.

Good Lord. I sure felt the truth of this over the last several weeks. And it looks like the new Forrester report called The Future of  Agency Relationships confirms it.

We recently started working with a new client and straight out of the gate we’re launching an important promotion and ongoing brand experience that no one either here at ID Branding or there at the client has ever done before. In fact, the more experts I talk to in hopes of smoothing the process a bit, the more I’m finding out that no one has ever done this. Not exactly this way.


But this is exactly what the new era calls for. We all better plan on living in a whole lot of uncertainty from now on. Because our audiences out there are demanding that we invent on their behalf, and that means not just the messages or the visual effects or the casting and sound track, but the experiences themselves and the venues for these experiences. (I’ll get more specific about this project in a future post if my client says it’s OK.)

Suffice to say, we are figuring this thing out as we go. And it’s been bumpy.

Now, I’m used to doing that in situations like a commercial shoot when you’re working with the production company to figure out how to put a 16 mm camera into the middle of a fast-flowing steam so you can shoot migrating steelhead underwater as they pass up stream. And then determining that you’re going to have to buy the fish and release them. And finding out there aren’t steelhead available, but you can get a tanker truck of really big trout, which is close enough.

And after that’s solved there’s the question of finding the damsel fly or dragon fly in the script, but the production company comes up dry and you’re lucky enough to have seen a lake loaded with them when you were scouting for locations. And so it goes, for maybe a few days. Pure unadulterated scramble.

But this is now becoming every day, not just production week. And if we’re doing our jobs right, we’re constantly doing something we’ve never done before. On a much bigger scale. It’s exhausting. But it’s also damn exciting.

That’s kind of what the Forrester report is saying, but in a much drier fashion and with much more scholarly authority and a bit more jargon. I’ve only read summaries and commentaries on it, but that’s enough to start a conversation with my fellow branding people about it.

Edward Boches has got a nice handle on it and it’s reinforcing what he’s been doing over at Mullen. He calls it Adaptive Brand Marketing. It’s reinforcing what a lot of us have been trying to do recently. And it’s helpful because it’s clarifying and articulating some of the challenges we’re all going to be facing together, side by side, agencies and clients. And that can be soothing when things get bumpy. Which they will.

Because uncharted territory is our new home. Thank God I’ve got a great client who is willing to co-conspire with us, rather than demand flawless execution at every turn. Because the only way you can be flawless is when you’ve done something over and over again. And that’s exactly what ISN’T going to cut it anymore.

It reminds me of the days when I was part of an interactive agency called Paris France. Everything we did was something we’d never done before. This was from 1999 to 2003, and the interactive brand experience was in its infancy. We were constantly wondering how we were going to pull off what was in our heads. We repeatedly turned to a slew of experts like the Flash wizard Phillip Kerman to help us figure things out.

And that’s what we’re doing with this current promotion event — we’re calling in all kinds of experts and friends and just figuring it out. And watching for results. And measuring. And then making tweaks and changes as necessary. Trial and adjustment.

The days of knowing are over. We are all sailing off the map, and it’s pretty exciting, as long as our clients are willing to be explorers with us and get wet. As the Forrester paper points out, “agencies and outsourced partners will become more important than ever (the world is too complex to figure it out alone).”

Man, that is so true.
– Doug

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I just watched the movie Pirate Radio, with Philip Seymour Hoffman et. al. Clients, if you want to understand the commitment of creatives to great work on your behalf, watch this movie.

In it, the disc jockeys are willing to go down with the ship to keep playing rock and roll on behalf of the audience. This is a direct metaphor for how creatives feel about the work they do on your behalf.

They, like the djs in the movie, are professionals. They have devoted their lives to understanding what your audience really wants from your brand. They are the very select number of people who get it at a cellular level. They have spent their careers understanding the nuances of what is great and what is crap — just like the djs in the movie. They have gone through hell to get the training and then to work at the agencies that will allow them to hone their skills, their instincts, and their insights. They have done what doctors or lawyers or mergers and acquisition experts do to learn their craft and to become experts. They have made immense sacrifices, often in terms of significant dollars, to work at places that value their contribution, rather than work at places that just care about placating the client.

Yet so often, because what they know is not something you too can know, their expertise is dismissed. Dismissed because you, the client, don’t understand what they understand. And you shouldn’t. Because we are all called to play different roles based on our different capabilities. We cannot play each other’s roles. Because we are not all the same people.

We need each other. And we need these differences.

But no role in the branding game is more easily dismissed and belittled than the creative’s role. Because it is not a quantifiable, measureable, linear, or scientifically provable role. It is a role whose value can only be recognized through faith.

Faith that someone is really good at something we don’t understand. And faith that they are sincere, as well as skilled.

I have, in twenty years in this business, really never worked with a creative who was cynical and jaded and manipulative. I have worked almost exclusively with people who deeply cared about creating something great on behalf of the client and their brand. Why? Why have I not seen the very thing that so many clients fear — the self-serving, award-seeking, career-improving creative?

Because the truth is, creatives are the same rare creatures you see in Pirate Radio — people of immense integrity and of silly, ridiculous idealism. These are people who are willing to spin their own intestines into something meaningful and delightful. People who might, in a wartime situation, be considered ideal canon fodder because they are so idealistically committed to what they’re doing.

And so they march bravely forward, as if bullets or the north sea could not cut them down. As if what they do is important, and valuable, and really necessary. They pour their very essences into what they do. Because they know, and they are right, that this is what your audiences hope they will do.

Your audiences are dying for wonderful things from your brand. These creatives are willing to make it. And so often they are met with a cynical doubt. A cynical dismissal. A cynicism that projects itself upon these people as if they, too, must be just as cynical as you are.

Will these creatives always be right. No, not always. Will they be right more often then they’re wrong? Absolutely, especially if they’ve been informed by strong strategic insights. Will they ever be intentionally leading you down the wrong path? They’d rather die.

So, you might not go along with everything these creatives show you. But by God you’d better not doubt that they totally and completely believe in what they’re showing you. And you’d better not delude yourself that you know better what your audience wants than they do. Not if the strategic insights were strong. Not if the brief was right.

This is the one thing that, in my experience, clients do not understand. Except the good ones. And God bless the good ones. Because you’ve got a creative department that will die on your behalf. I will die on your behalf.

(There’s a literal as well as an emotional truth to this. A recent study shows that working the kind of hours creatives work leads to a 60% greater risk of heart attack.)

I hope you can start to understand this, and possibly appreciate it.

– Doug

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The difference, I have finally learned, between a good agency-client relationship and a bad one, is curiosity.

How often have you been in a meeting when work gets presented (whether that be a creative brief, a brand platform, a logo, or a full-blown campaign) and immediately people start talking about what they don’t like? They attack it under the guise of giving the agency “feedback.”

How often have you been in the same kind of meeting when people started off by asking questions about why this, what is your thought behind that, explain to me how this part works again?

There’s a big difference between these two meetings. One leads, inevitably, to disaster and a bad relationship. The other holds out all kinds of hope, even if that work is eventually killed.

Curiosity puts off the killing until the thing that’s being killed is fully understood.

Dan Wieden, a long time ago in an interview somewhere, said that truly creative work doesn’t lead people to shout out, “Yeah!” It leads people to say “Huh?” And nine times out of ten that’s exactly right. (There are the occasional exceptions, depending on the people in the room.) Because something truly creative isn’t familiar. It isn’t comfortable (even if it proves to be exactly right upon further reflection). It isn’t obvious. Usually.

Curiosity and confidence. And decisiveness. These are the three client attributes that lead to a great relationship.

Confidence allows you to rest in uncertainty and probe for understanding. Confidence allows you to recognize, eventually, if it’s the right thing without having to resort to showing it to your church group (a client really did that once) or testing it. Confidence leads to decisiveness, which is the sign of a true leader.

Decisiveness is what happens when confidence goes into action. Work gets produced, even if it takes a few rounds to get there.

Now, what about the agency? What are the agency attributes that lead to a great relationship?

Curiosity, right off the bat. If the agency isn’t deeply curious about what the client knows and feels and what the client brings to the party then the relationship is doomed. Curiosity shows up in questions. Questions followed not by reactions or disagreement, but by digestion, followed by more questions. Every client in the world needs to see and know that they are being heard, and heard deeply. But the same is true in reverse. Every client needs to fully listen – with curiosity – to its agency.

Confidence is another. The agency must act confidently in recommending, to the utmost of its ability, the right path (or paths) for the client. Even if the client doesn’t know that this is what they should consider doing. Even if it’s not exactly what the client asked for. Because our job, as agencies, is to solve our clients’ business and branding problems by using our own skills and experience to do so.

We believe the agency-client relationship should be one of co-conspirators, so that, together, client and agency are working toward the same goal. Not that they’re trying to do each other jobs – that’s disastrous. But they are doing their own jobs in unison. That can’t happen if the client doesn’t want the agency’s expertise, or if the agency doesn’t want the wisdom of the client. If the curiosity isn’t mutual, and sincere, then the relationship is bound to be bad.

Decisiveness shows up in recognizing that it’s vital to do what it takes to make the relationship strong and whole, rather than just letting it unravel. Every infatuation leads to the long, sustained reality of working hard to make the relationship work (just like in marriage). If either client or agency doesn’t recognize this and can’t act with commitment to that kind of relationship, then decisiveness will eventually lead to a parting of ways. And that’s almost always sad.

– Doug

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In-house creative departments – now that’s a delicate subject.

We’ve had great relationships with them, and we’ve had not-so-great relationships. And we have more than one client with an in-house group today. There can be a lot of pain on both sides. There can also be pleasure, too. What’s interesting about in-house creative departments is that they cause everyone to get all Sartre and ask why we exist – agency, in-house, client.

Whatever the answer is, the pain (if there is pain) comes from confusion. So here’s an attempt at some clarity.

The first question that must be answered is, why was an in-house group formed in the first place? Was it to do the job of an outside agency? Or was it to supplement the work of outside agencies?

The second question is, why was an outside agency hired? Was it to find a partner with the skills and disciplines to help you grow your brand? Or was it to give the in-house group a little extra help but, really, they can do what the agency does?

The third question is, what’s the difference between an in-house group and an outside agency?

Let’s start with the last question. We believe the difference is free will.

A beloved client of ours articulated this better than we ever could. He told his in-house group that if they were willing to give up all their job security, work incredibly long hours, and risk getting fired at any moment and ending up out on the street looking for a job and maybe having to move their family cross-country to find one, then he’d give them the same creative opportunities he was giving the agency.

This is where free will enters the picture. Because anyone who would be happy working in-house would probably not be happy working at an agency, and vice versa. They are two entirely different worlds that call for completely different skill sets and dispositions. Sadly the two worlds have confusingly similar titles, like designer, copywriter, etc.

OK, OK, I see the exceptions. Some in-house creative groups operate more like agencies, and vice versa. But generally, this is why the two worlds exist. They attract two different kinds of people, and they tackle two very different problems.

The agency is designed to strategize, concept, and execute brand experiences. The in-house group is designed to execute elements of brand experiences. Anyone who disagrees probably belongs in the other world.

Let’s be truthful about this. The agency world is full of uncertainty, extreme stress, long hours, job hopping, and the demand to constantly innovate. The in-house world is more about steady effort over time, a brand system to execute within, moderate stress, a more normal work week, and relative job security. (Unless you work for an athletic shoe company.) Neither is better, they are just incredibly different.

Here’s an analogy we use. You’re building a house (your brand). You need both plumbers and electricians, right? Both are important, both have different disciplines. Why would an electrician want to do what a plumber does, and vice versa? It doesn’t make sense.

The biggest difference is that agencies understand creating brands as a system. In-house groups don’t, because it’s not what they’re trained to do and it’s not what they’re paid to do. I learned about this concept from John Muir’s Keeping Your Volkswagen Alive, a Manual of Step By Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot. In college, I used his book to work on my square back. Muir says in the intro that I needed his book because, unlike a master mechanic, I didn’t understand a car as a system. So I needed step by step instructions. Whereas the master mechanic comprehended the car as system, and could see the inter-relationship of all the parts at once.

That’s what agencies do. They understand branding as a system. And if they don’t do it well, they get fired. Agencies are able to invent new expressions of the brand and new experiences and still be true to the brand – which sometimes doesn’t feel fair to in-house groups.

In-house groups tend to execute within a system, using either broad or narrow guidelines. They don’t tend to invent and evolve the system. People know this when they choose either the agency or the in-house world. Free will leads them to one or the other.

Confusion is our Freddy Kruger. Confusion of one world for another will haunt our dreams and manifest really bad things. There’s a reason why The Gap abandoned doing their advertising in-house and went to outside agencies. Even they couldn’t pull it off.

Now, let’s talk about client intent. Be honest. When you started the in-house creative group, was it to supplement what an agency would do and to generate the multitude of things in-house groups generate? Or was it because you see design and advertising as a commodity, and figured you can pull it in-house and save a bunch of money?

If it was to supplement what an agency does, then you need to be clear to your people exactly where the boundary is – for everyone’s sake. If it was to create your own private agency, then please, don’t hire an outside agency. It will only lead to conflict and no one will be happy with the results.

Happiness and good results come from both groups understanding where and how they get to exercise their skills. A good agency will work with a client to map out the brand with the in-house group and give them broader guidelines rather than dictatorial templates.

It’s vital to let both groups do what they’re really good at and stretch and grow. Both groups need to feel a sense of real accomplishment. Agencies are not happy coming up with ideas and then handing them off to the in-house group to be executed. Execution is just as strategic as strategy. And your agency must be allowed to bring their ideas to life. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of work to be done within the brand system by the in-house group.

Sorry, clients. I’m afraid drawing the boundary is your job. But a good agency is always willing to help figure out where that boundary should be drawn.

– Doug

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Developmentally speaking, of course. Are the humans who comprise your client-agency relationship operating at a pre-schooler level of fear and anger? Or are they acting like well-adjusted adults?

Not that I generally favor the company of adults over pre-schoolers. Pre-schoolers lift my spirits, renew my sense of ridiculous optimism, and laugh at the word “poop.” But when the pressure climbs, I want to be dealing with mature adults.

There is a man who I cannot believe I am lucky enough to both know and work with. His name is Thom Walters. Thom has not only worked beside us on client projects through Coraggio Group, but he has also taught a negotiation seminar here at ID Branding – three times, in fact. Whenever we get enough new employees, we bring him back again to teach it. And while the full day class (actually two half-days) is too rich and big to blog about intelligently, I can focus on one aspect of it that has transformed my way of working. It’s the concept of the Five Developmental Levels. And it helps me see just how retarded I can be.

In his past life, Thom spent 6 years on the global executive team at Wieden + Kennedy. So this is a man who has lived in the “a” of crazy. Before that, back in his graduate student days, he and his mentor developed a negotiation system that’s taught in the Geneva School of Diplomacy.

According to Thom, we all spend a good part of our day moving up and down the ladder of these Five Developmental Levels. It takes intent and discipline not to sink to the lowest levels but, instead, to hang up in the rarified air of the top. But for me, the trying is worth it. Because I’m sick of the petty wars that still sometimes happen in this business. I want to have a great client-agency relationship. (As well as agency-agency relationship, husband-wife relationship, father-daughter relationship, etc). When things get stupid in meetings, it’s almost always because someone’s slid toward the bottom.

Here are the Five Levels:

1. Enforcer

This is pretty much a pre-schooler way of thinking and relating to others. Nothing’s wrong with that as long as you give it up when you turn six. Otherwise life is a battlefield. If you’re 36 and living here, you’re probably living alone.

Assumptions: To get what I want from others, I have to use force. I can’t get what I want. People are against me.

Characteristics: No empathy, egocentric, crises-ridden, immediacy, fear, anger, no trust.

Behaviors: Forcing, demanding, ordering, pushing, attacking, controlling, intimidating, threatening, avoiding, withdrawing

Sound familiar? Yeah, I think you’re going to find a face to go with every one of these levels. Truth is, most faces inhabit more than one level.

2. Scorekeeper

Congratulations, you’re now acting like a six to eight year old. Life is pretty Machiavellian.

Assumptions: To get what I want, I have to be clever and deceptive. There is not enough to go around and I’m afraid I won’t get my fair share. People are greedy and out to get all they can.

Characteristics: Distorted projections, literal thinking, low trust, cautiousness, resentment, suspiciousness.

Behaviors: Deception, strategizing, mutual back-scratching, scorekeeping, blaming, seducing, bargaining

3. Peacemaker

This could be loosely though of as a Junior High School approach to the world.

Assumptions: To get what I want I have to earn it by obligating others. I must take care of others. I must please others and meet their expectations.

Characteristics: Third-person perspective, empathy, needs to look good, needs approval, conditional, weak boundaries.

Behaviors: Avoids conflict, friendly, pleasant, rescuing, uses the love test (if you love me you’ll know what I need), apologetic, placating

4. Rebel Producer

We’ve moved up to roughly the teenager mindset here.

Assumptions: To get what I want, I have to be competent and do it myself. I need to stay tough so I don’t give in. Others need to be shaped up.

Characteristics: Dichotomous thinking, down-to-business relationships, results-oriented, impatient, risk-taking, pride in accomplishments, tough.

Behaviors: Demands proof and practical results, challenging, dismissing, productive, avoids commitments and teamwork.

5. Generator

This corresponds with a mature and adult mind – in the good sense of the word adult.

Assumptions: To get what I want, I need to understand and accept reality. Life is abundant. People are not greedy, just needy.

Characteristics: Dialectical thinking, mutual respect and trust, self-confidence, self-appropriated values, calm, curiosity, long-term and broad perspective, focus on common good, interdependent relationships.

Behaviors: Multi-perspective thinking, chosen vulnerability, directness, balanced risk-taking, mentoring, open exchange.

So, duh, who doesn’t want to be a five? The first challenge, however, is to be aware that these different levels exist. The second challenge is to try to monitor where you’re operating at the moment. The third and biggest challenge is to rise up to the level of Generator. For me it sometimes feels like climbing out of a swimming pool with a dozen lead sash weights in my pockets. It takes effort.

I know someone who used to work under Richard Fuld, the Chairman and CEO of now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers. She said that in his best moments he was a Rebel Producer, but more often hovered between Enforcer and Scorekeeper. He was referred to as The Gorilla. Apparently he systematically fired all the people who didn’t see things his way. And now, as of yesterday, the fourth largest investment bank in the country, born in 1844 and survivor of the Civil War and the Great Depression, is kaput. Developmentally retarded behavior can be fatal.

Most likely each of these levels creates a mental picture of a real person for you. And, if you’re not completely deluded, you can picture times when you’ve acted out one through five yourself – maybe even all in one meeting. That’s not surprising. No one’s saying we should expect to constantly live at level five. That’s reserved for Yoda and Ghandi. But we can at least try to live at level five more often.

What I love about this system is that it clarifies bad agency and bad client behavior. And it shows that this behavior is not inevitable, but is often a decision. If people on both the agency and client side of the relationship could watch themselves and try to operate at a level five, amazing things would be possible. Not only could this lead to brilliant and strategic work, it could also lead to sustainable and satisfying relationships. So that’s why I’m writing this blog entry.

As Thom says, you never want to throw these titles in someone’s face, like “Oh, man, you are such a Scorekeeper.” Bad idea. Best just to use it to monitor your own behavior. It’s amazing how it can change the room when someone starts really operating like a Generator. This is especially important if you’re a manager with people reporting to you, because they’re watching you closely and mimicking your approach to problem solving.

For me, I’m constantly dipping down and pulling myself back up. How positively unretarded it would be if clients and agencies both acted more like Generators and less like Gladiators.

– Doug

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