Advertiser vs Agency: The new relationship

Marc Sands wants agencies to evolve to capture the digital space but Johnny Hornby says clients should brief in media-neutral terms.

According to a report in The Guardian two weeks ago, internet advertising is "to overtake national newspapers" in terms of expenditure. Big news, I wonder if the agencies read the piece?

The Guardian is in the process of "pitching" for a creative agency to replace DDB London- an exciting and tense period for us. It happens infrequently and is an opportunity both to get our existing house in order and to decide how we should position and express ourselves for the future.

In comparison with the last time (about five years ago), it feels different.

Different because it is as important that the proposals work equally well for the paper and the digital offering. It questions the competence of the agencies to understand and deliver the web as a media channel that asks slightly different strategic and creative questions than the more traditional media channels. Unlike solutions on TV, print, radio and posters, where a wealth of precedence exists, in the online world the answer to most questions is simply not clear.

In the past, the remit of a pitch was straightforward. Client defined the problem, agencies were invited to question the definition of the problem, refine it or agree with it. Agency then developed a devastating reductionist strategy and some effervescent creative work and, for an agreed price, the business was theirs.

The changes in our industry on both the agency and the client side have left the process a little less clear than it used to be. The radical restructure of the agency world over the past decade has, on the whole, not been to the benefit of clients. The disaggregation of the strategy, the creative and the media has now, in my view, gone too far.

The demise of the full-service agency (which I for one regret), coupled with TV advertising's fall from grace has created a situation where the problem may be crystal clear to the client and its roster of agencies, but the client is no longer sure which agency it should ask for the solution.

The ad agency? The media agency? The digital agency? The strategic specialist or the DM specialist? Talking to them at the same time is not an option.

Those of you who have tried to get multiple agencies in a room will understand the difficulties of even scheduling a joint meeting, let alone generating an integrated point of view.

Pitches are not just about the execution, though I would be lying if I did not confess it is a big part of it. (I have never understood the point of pitches that are strategic and not creative.) The pitch is about the creation of a sustainable idea that can be translated across an entire marketing landscape. The looming question is how does it translate to the digital landscape?

One thing is certain, brands will exist in the digital space - which agency is best placed to assist in their creation, manifestation and development is not so certain. Who among the plethora of agencies is best placed to create the big brand idea? This is further complicated by the fact they are competing with one another for a share of fees and for reasons fathomless to me, there is a form of omerta between agencies so that they rarely, if ever, comment on each other's ideas. Bonkers, I know, but true.

Agencies are either unwilling or unable to proffer an opinion outside their own discipline. When it comes to the planning and execution of communication plans, as clients we need an aerial view in addition to the view from the ground. This is what is missing and in its absence it is left to us, but a broader discussion would help clients make better decisions.

Old habits die hard and it remains the case that the ad agency generally assumes the role of "lead" agency. How long this will last, I don't know.

The sheer collective experience of the ad agency, coupled with its share of the expenditure, assures it a firm hold on the creation of the idea.

This will be severely challenged in the digital space.

From the client's point of view, the changes are equally profound. With so many agencies working with us, the development of integrated work is much harder to oversee than it used to be. A simple case of too many cooks.

Agencies used to complain that clients could never make their minds up and never agree a direction among themselves. This is exactly the issue now on the collective agency side.

The explosion in media choice and the rise of the digital space has exacerbated the problem. Digital is a genuinely new frontier where experience counts for something, but not as much as in old media. There is so little experience to draw from and, in truth, presently, most is learned from clients' experiences.

This is a real challenge to agencies, and they should eventually emerge ahead of the game because unlike advertisers (with the experience of just their own business), agencies have many clients from which they can learn much.

In response to these issues, we have already changed how we work. We do more of our own communications and have created an in-house multidiscipline agency that creates anything from DM to mainstream advertising.

It is not, however, a gloomy future, just an uncertain one. The marketing and advertising industry is on the cusp of change. Relationships are being challenged, not necessarily overturned. We are on the flip-side of the same coin, and neither one should move too far away from the other's orbit.

I do not know what the solutions will be but expect pain, success, trial and an awful lot of errors.

Anyway, back to the impending pitch. I hope to leave at least one of the meetings with the same feeling I did five years ago, when we emerged from the BMP DDB presentation. Exhilarated and a little humbled. Exhilarated by the sheer brilliance of the creative work. Humbled by their understanding of our issues and the sheer mountain of effort undertaken. Somewhere in the pitch process, it clicked and they "got us".

The "us" has changed this time. I hope for the sake of the pitching agencies they don't forget the internet.

- Marc Sands is the marketing director of The Guardian


Looking back, it used to be a lot less complicated than it is today. In days gone by, different advertiser genres found their formula, justified it, refined it and then pretty much stuck to their knitting. There might be a bit more DM spend here one year, a little less on TV there, but rarely did anything genuinely earth-shattering occur to change the overall pattern.

Big retailers, on the whole, liked press (with some tactical TV or a bit of radio at Christmas and sale times), and with good reason. Newspapers got you in front of pretty much everyone you needed to speak to. That formula led you to choose a media agency whose core skill was to buy well, and a creative agency that could do a fast turnaround without being too precious about getting lots of products and prices (preferably big ones) into the ads.

In FMCG, you made big brand TV ads and you took a long time doing it.

Car launches had their own formula, which usually began by suspending the new car over the Thames from a helicopter (there was never a ratecard for that), followed by a 60-second commercial shot on an African plain with a stadium-rock track in perfect sync with the car's gear changes.

That would break on the day a poster showing "the metal" went up (usually with a headline saying something like "grrrrrrrrrr"). If anybody on the board challenged the marketing director on this logic, the media department (or agency, as it became) could justify it all for you, usually with pretty robust data. "More people who might buy this new car drive to work on main arterial routes (past our posters) than they do read magazines, so we're right to be on posters," they would argue. "The chairman may well ask why we weren't in the rugby but 70 per cent of our drinkers, according to our research, prefer football and they were all watching our ad during the game on Saturday."

But now the pattern is changing fundamentally, and very rapidly. Media fragmentation and the multitude of options available as technology develops and is embraced by consumers mean that these old formulae are being challenged almost daily across our industry.

You could argue that when this change started, it was driven by a faddish desire to try new things with new media, often for the sake of it. Even so, the old formulae are now increasingly failing to deliver the results they used to, let alone the improved results every marketing director is tasked with delivering every quarter from the same-sized budget.

In the past two weeks alone, more than one million people have seen our new Tango commercial, yet it hasn't had a single penny of media spend behind it - it's embedded in a site called the Swansea North Residents Association ( /tv_advert.html). Our latest TV commercial for The One Account exists to direct consumers to a website called "The Mortgage Shrinker", and our Telegraph trade campaign does not appear in the trade press but on pavements and in pubs located close to media agencies.

While this is all very exciting, presenting all sorts of new avenues for creative people to express themselves, it also presents some serious challenges for advertisers and the agencies they work with.

In this new world, a strong client and a good agency will continue to be united in their ability to create, nurture and grow brands and find engaging creative ideas. That creativity should increasingly seek not to be constrained by discipline. It shouldn't, for example, start in advertising and then be taken down into other media.

But if a marketing department divides itself solely by function, and has a DM manager whose job it is to independently brief DM agencies, then that marketing department should not be surprised if the solution they get back is a piece of DM.

In the future, clients and marketers will probably work with fewer, broader, more strategic creative agencies, rather than with a number of single discipline-led agencies.

And clients should start building for that change now by testing those agencies, challenging them to create media-neutral briefs that start with the problem or challenge for the brand and let the creative solution unfold from there.

Rather than getting a brief for a new brand TV campaign, of X budget and Y time length, supported by posters, we should receive briefs that ask us to bring the brand idea to life in a way that engages our target audience and delivers us the results we need.

If the best solution is to sponsor the shirt of every child whose mum signs up to the brand for every children's football team across the UK, then fine. On the other hand, if the answer is a more traditional one, that's fine too.

To genuinely achieve this on an ongoing basis, at least two things need to happen on the agency side too. First, the brand planning and communications planning disciplines need to be brought much closer together so we know both what to say and where best to find our consumers. And these new-generation planners need to be briefing ideas departments, containing not only people with great track records in TV and print, but equally in design, live events, digital, direct marketing, publishing and PR. All these people need to work together to create new combinations of traditional and non-traditional media that we may not even recognise at first - but that excite us and our clients with their potential to better the old formula.

In truth, this change probably requires a more fundamental shift on the agency side than on the client side, where the experience has been by definition broader. Having said that, young people coming into agencies all over London have grown up in this new world and are already more adept ideas thinkers than we used to be. And the very best creative people in our business have always been those who think in big concepts, not just advertising executions.

- Johnny Hornby is a partner at Clemmow Hornby Inge.


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