Close-up: Do agencies need better marketing?

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 15 October 2010 12:00AM

When it comes to marketing themselves, should ad agencies try much harder, John Tylee asks.

They say the cobblers' children go the worst shod and many believe that the adage can't be more apposite when applied to Britain's ad agencies, whose preoccupation with shining their clients' image has left their own efforts at image improvement looking distinctly down-at-heel.

Even Helen Weisinger, soon to quit Fallon to occupy the newly created role of chief marketing officer at McCann London, admits: "Agencies are rubbish when it comes to marketing themselves."

This may seem odd given that more than 40 years have elapsed since Martin Boase, one of the first admen to recognise the importance of agencies getting themselves written about rather than just their work, announced the appointment of Boase Massimi Pollitt's new chairman on the electronic tickertape in Piccadilly Circus.

Today, however, marketing remains a relatively low priority on the agendas of most big agencies.

Why? "For one thing, the chief marketing officer's job is a very hard one because there are so few significant points of difference between one agency and the next," one former agency marketing executive turned PR consultant says.

"For another, there's the cost of hiring somebody sufficiently senior for a communication role.

And I don't believe most clients could give a monkeys about how well an agency markets itself."

And there remains the question of how to quantify the success of agency marketing, particularly when most agency chiefs see the marketing and new-business functions as indivisible. "It all comes down to how good your product is," Russ Lidstone, the Euro RSCG London chief executive, insists. "If you have a bad one, you can't market your way around it."

"Marketing success is very hard to measure," Camilla Harrison, the former M&C Saatchi marketing director who is now the chief operating officer of the M&C Group, admits. "But if you do it well, you attract interest and, with that, comes new business. It means you don't have to go into the trenches to fight for every passing account."

Others, though, are sceptical about the merits of this approach. "Just how much marketing is it possible for an agency to do?" James Murphy, the Adam & Eve founding partner, asks. "Clients are time-poor and rarely susceptible to it. But they will respond to good work and good case studies."

Stephen Woodford, DDB London's chief executive, suggests the powerful position of the pitch consultants has reduced the need for agencies to market themselves extensively. "Very few pitches happen without an intermediary being involved so we have to be sure that they understand our business," he explains. "It makes the marketing of the agency less critical and less of a priority."

Weisinger, whose new role encompasses marketing and new business and comes with a boardroom seat, suggests there's more to the job than just helping pull in new clients. "The new-business market is drier than ever before, which is why you've got to focus on your existing clients if you are going to grow your business," she argues.

Guy Hayward, the JWT UK group chief executive, agrees that existing clients need to know the breadth and quality of an agency's work, as do other network offices, holding companies and potential new clients. And he suggests good marketing can help attract the best talent.

"I would argue that this is a big job all agencies should be doing," he says. "But few are doing it well."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com

AGENCY HEAD - Chris Macdonald, chief executive, McCann London

"There's a fine balance to be struck between marketing ourselves and marketing the work we do for our clients.

"Of course, that work should speak for itself but you can always do better at making sure everybody knows that it's your work.

"Also, the way we communicate in the marketing arena is changing. That includes how we blog, how we Tweet and how we present ourselves so that we get hold of the best graduates.

"We need the best people to give us a chance in what is an over-supplied market and communicate the fact that we're a creative agency that does lots of other stuff besides TV."

CLIENT - Jeff Dodds, director of internal communications and employee engagement, Virgin Media TV

"It's a fascinating indication of the times in which we live that agencies believe better marketing might attract more clients.

"I tend to rely on intermediaries when I'm compiling pitchlists because the industry changes so quickly and the agencies that were doing the best work last year may not necessarily be doing it now.

"The most important thing for agencies is getting their PR right with key influencers such as intermediaries, influential clients and the marketing press. I'd be pretty cynical about an agency running an ad for itself - but I'd take a lot more notice of people whose views I trust talking positively about an agency's work."

MARKETING HEAD - Camilla Harrison, chief operating officer, M&C Group

"You can never market an agency too heavily. The job never ends and, ultimately, senior management has to take responsibility for it.

"You can't just leave it to the chief marketing officer. All of us have to strive constantly to be more proactive about ensuring we have the right conversations with the right people.

"Good marketing is important not only as a way of reassuring clients that they are in a relationship with a Premier League agency but also to ensure that everybody in the agency knows what's going on and becomes a potential 'ambassador' for you."

AGENCY HEAD - Stephen Woodford, chief executive, DDB London

"Our marketing focus tends to be on the new-business consultants. Few big pitches happen without them so it's important that they know us and our capabilities well.

"Therefore, marketing is as much about personal relationships with the key intermediaries and opinion formers. That's why I believe classic outbound general marketing, like mailing programmes, is a relatively low priority in many agencies.

"When we do want to reach a particular client or organisation, we spend the time to create a message on an idea that's highly personalised, relevant and hopefully of potential value to them, and we have a good response."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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