When did Agency of Record become a dirty word?
A view from Maureen Maldari

When did Agency of Record become a dirty word?

The CEO of The BAM Connection examines the unintended consequences of project work

We live in a world where change is a badge of fresh thinking and discovering the next best thing is a seductive mistress.

The intense desire to be provocative has resulted in an increasing number of marketers moving to project-based work in search of creating a sexy, new object worthy of notice. They are trading in the old AOR model in hopes that it will bring a newfound consideration and validation. They chase cool new shops or technology, and place agencies in competitive mode. In some respects, a brand’s need to make noise in a cluttered competitive environment makes the decision to shift on a moment’s notice highly attractive.

However, more and more marketers spend time "shopping" the brand when they should be building it. But what does it cost the partners who actually spend the time building their brands?

Trading in the AOR model for project work has generated a significant lack of commitment to agencies of all shapes and sizes. Projects can appear highly enticing to an agency — it offers them the opportunity to demonstrate their creativity and the disruptive thinking that usually accompanies it. They can also appear equally attractive to clients —  allowing them to manage their overall fee structure while creating spikes in brand awareness.

In reality, project work is a Trojan horse. Once it gets inside the agency it has the potential to wreak havoc on both the brand and the people supporting it. There are many unintended, negative effects of project work.

With project work, no one is fully vested in the brand. Who cares if the brand is around in another second, minute, let alone decade? Not the brand people — they are focused on the numbers so they can secure a big year-end bonus. Not the agency — they are not getting paid enough for their ideas and will be working to fill their funnel even before the project is over. As in any relationship, both sides have to do their part to make it successful. If the brand doesn’t commit to the agency, the agency won’t commit to the brand.

This reciprocal lack of commitment places great agency talent at tremendous risk. Brand managers swoop in and manage the agency’s resources on a quick turnaround, get what they need and then move on. That doesn’t bode well for the talent that creates the work. Chances are if the agency doesn’t have ongoing work for them, strong talent will be at risk. So the same people that are identifying the fresh approach may not be there the next time the brand decides to return for another project.

In addition, project work tends to rely on the "quick hit" vs. long-term brand building, creating an environment where the brand becomes a chameleon. In an ever-changing world, do we need more reasons to mistrust, misconstrue or disconnect from the very products that can actually enhance our lives? A provocative activation that puts forward messaging that is otherwise out of character for a brand will confuse consumers who yearn for authenticity and simplicity. This is even more evident with the younger Millennials. Brands need to stand for something. Those that act as a chameleon — constantly changing their spots rather than maintaining a core identity — will ultimately stand for nothing.

What happens to the brand/agency relationship when the focus is on quick hits? It creates the "bounce" effect where brands bounce from agency to agency when seeking support for different projects, an increasingly popular trend.

Agencies expend countless hours and drain financials competing for the "breakthrough idea of the week" because of the importance of building new relationships in a hotly contested market. Some get lucky and hit a great viral connection, but most become a victim of the bounce effect, with brands continuously seeking an elusive outcome that will likely never occur.

For all the allure of project work, at best it serves to win just the battle, not the war, for brand awareness. Even a successful spike in sales or jump in brand lift will not address any long-term brand challenges. It’s a strong argument for reconsidering the AOR model, which breeds a long-term commitment from both agencies and brands that project work does not and cannot generate.

Like any good relationship, the one between brand and agency will be short-lived if it’s premised only on an initial seduction. A long-term commitment replete with mutual respect and open dialogue is the cornerstone of a successful, long-term, brand/agency relationship.

Maureen Maldari is CEO of The BAM Connection.