Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: You mean aside from the fear of losing key Clients, not hitting the Agency’s margin goal, not winning enough new business, trying to adapt to a new business model, and trying to keep the peace in the Agency?
Q: It sounds like a very tough job. What are the toughest parts?
A: Well, that depends. Typically we lurch from crisis to crisis. At the moment I am dealing with two major Clients that want to renegotiate their fee agreement with the Agency. In Client speak the work “renegotiate” really means “do more work for me and charge me less”.
One of these Clients wants to lower the fee but hold the scope of work constant. He has already let it be known that another Agency would be happy to agree to such a deal. The Regional Head of the Account has let me know that we cannot, under any circumstances, let the business leave. Separately, the Regional Finance Director has let me know that we cannot let the margin drop on the Account. And the Regional Creative Director wants heads to roll because the quality of the creative on the account is not meeting his high standards. After all, he has a commitment with Senior Agency Management to win a Lion on this Account in the next calendar year.
The other Client simply wants to stop paying a fee. He would be happy to keep the business at the Agency and work on a per project basis. He does not understand that it is impossible to have a team ready to work on an Account that is not funded. Or maybe he just not interested in understanding this.
Q: How will you solve these problems?
A: Honestly, I have no idea. In all likelihood we will stall as long as possible and then cave in to both Clients demands. And then we will hope that something magical happens on the first Account and that we will be able to keep the Account, make money and win the Award. On the second Account we will probably have to agree to his per project demands and do the work using people who are already 100% assigned to other existing (and funded) pieces of business.
Q: Won’t you be setting two very nasty precedents for future fee negotiations?
A: Wasn’t it John Maynard Keynes who said “in the long term we are all dead”?
Q: Internally in the Agency, what are some of your biggest challenges?
A: Getting things done right the first time. There is a massive amount of re-work on most projects and this has a terrible effect on Agency profitability and on Client relationships. Some projects get re-done five to six times and the number can get to the double digits.
Q: What causes all this re-work?
A: Quite a few things actually. But two things stand out. The first is that no matter what we do or what process we put in place, creative briefs never seem to inspire the Creatives. Sometimes Clients give us “verbal” briefs. This is a politically correct way of saying that they did not give us a brief and figuring out what they want and what to do can take forever. Other Clients give us briefs that are written in “marketing speak” and are so full of jargon and useless information that it can take when you forever to understand and when you finally decipher them, you learn that you have to deal with 27 seconds of mandatories and key visuals and are left with 3 seconds to be “creative”. The third king of brief we deal with is a self-inflicted wound. It is produced internally and is often written “planner speak”. Here we combine the best of both worlds-we don’t understand the content of the document and we don’t know what to do with it.
The second big cause of re-work is our lack of selling skills. We spend huge amounts of time trying to convince other departments that our point of view is right but I suspect that they are never fully convinced. And then we take the work to the Client and are unable to sell it through. Then we do one of two things. We either “improve” the idea until it is unrecognizable or we go straight back to the brief stage and start the process over again. Either way it leads to massive re-work.
Q: What are some other challenges?
A: Getting people who grew up with TV, who like doing TV, to think in other media. And once they start thinking in other media, to try to make as much money on those new media as we did on TV.
Q: Which competitors frighten you?
A: I am terrified of the small boutiques that are cropping up everywhere. Their pitch to my Clients is very simple. The owner of the Agency generally had a solid career in a multinational Agency. He often built his relationships with my Clients during this time. And he will approach these Clients and remind them that he can provide all the know-how and experience that his big Agency background gave him, with the speed, involvement and fees of a small Agency.
The other frightening competitor is the small digital shop. Clients are looking for digital know-how and don’t believe that they can get it at a large Agency. The owner of the digital shop can very easily throw some digital catchwords and phrases at the Client and seduce him, mainly because the Client wants to be seduced. Additionally, this Agency is used to working on a per project basis and that is an issue that I have yet to resolve.
Finally, a dark little secret-it is much easier to learn to do “above the line” work when you come from “below the line”. At a large Agency like mine, “below the line” continues to be thought of as unglamorous grunt work.
Last but not least, the Managing Director of both the boutique and the digital shop has the power to get things done. You would be surprised to know how many layers of approval I have to get before making the smallest change. Everyone who is anyone in the network has an opinion about what I should do but only I get the blame when things don’t work out.
Q: Any other big challenges?
A: It is impossible to find good people, in any department. And once you find them, being able to afford them without throwing your salary structure out of whack is hard. And once you have found them and hired them, keeping them properly compensated in a world of corporate salary freezes is mission impossible.
Q: So where do you see the future for the Agency?
A: I don’t know what they future looks like but I am pretty sure that we will never get there with our current model. We need to change but we often prefer the devil we know to the one we don’t.
Q: Thank you very much for your time and honesty.
A: Thank you. (And just to confirm, this is all off the record, right?)