Is the old agency model dead?

A question posed in PRWeek this week as agency GolinHarris took over the publication with several pages given over to analysis of their new agency structure.

Much was made of their decision to demolish the traditional structure and replace accepted roles with a four pillared approach based on strategist, creator, catalyst and connector specialists instead of generalists.

But is it a clever PR stunt or something deeper? A comment perhaps on the evolving demands placed on the consultancy sector or the often bloated nature of the agencies that work within it and their need to drive efficiency?

Whichever side you come down on,  it provoked lots  of industry heavyweights, and some lightweights too, into offering their perspective.

What their move has done is recognise the growing role and significance of digital and social media in the marketing mix. And it gives a mid-sized PR agency the opportunity the take on specialist PR, advertising, media and digital agencies in an increasingly divergent operating environment.

Scale is a factor and this is the reason most agencies are structured the way the are. Clients invariably prefer a single point of contact as this reduces the communications flow to a more manageable level. It will be interesting to see if other agencies follow suit.


Ten ways to get the most from your clients

My recent post citing ten ways to get the most from your agency stirred up some mixed emotions when discussed on the blog, in Linkedin groups, on Twitter and further afield.

The emphasis was placed on clients knowing what they wanted to achieve from their marketing efforts, providing communicative briefs outlining their requirements, working with and viewing the agency as a collaborative and long term partner. Otherwise, the relationship was doomed to failure.

Whilst I think this is reasonable, I wanted to provide some balance as agencies don’t always do their fair share of relationship nurturing.

The key learning from this tandem blog seems to be in an upfront clarification of roles and responsibilities, the communication and understanding of expectations and the establishment of robust, and reasonable reporting processes.

I’d be interested in your feedback once you’ve had time to review. Here goes:

1. Effort. From the outset, agree the degree of effort to be expended on a pitch, try and build a rapport and then if you win it, don’t try and include the charge in your billings. Unfortunately, agencies need to accept that pitching is still part and parcel of the gig.

2. The team. In pitches, introduce the team that will work on the account, not the agency big hitters who will win it and pass it on. You want to build a long term relationship, rooted in chemistry.

3. Show some management love. But don’t keep all the big hitters away from it either. Show some love when clients come to town. Be interested in meetings, their news and developments, and encourage a review of deliverables and the working relationship at regular intervals.

4. Work strategically if given the remit to. Clients should know what they want and where they want to get to. Agencies can work strategically in terms of integrating tactics and aligning them to commercial goals but too many agencies see their role as defining the business strategy, which in my view shouldn’t be the case.

5. Know when to push. There is often a prioritisation taking place and as long as you are seen to have been doing your job, it can’t be held against you if you are seeking a decision but for whatever reason it isn’t forthcoming.

6. Know when to sell. This means understanding your client’s budgeting cycle and pitching new ideas accordingly. There is simply no point doing it mid year if the budget is set.

7. Accept price negotiation. Budgets for most client marketers have declined if not stayed the same. Accept that your pricing will be scrutinized and be prepared to defend it. Value is one argument but costs should be as transparent and in line with the going rate for the work. If you can’t explain why you are worth £20 or £200 an hour, you probably aren’t.

8. Add value. To build your profile as a trusted adviser, occasionally share interesting or potentially relevant news stories, polls etc you may come across in your work for other clients. Don’t badge it as selling, just as taking a broader business view and taking in stimuli from other sectors.

9. Add more value. Simplify status reports, annual plans and minimise the flow of communication to daily emails or calls if it can help get quick decisions made. Run immersion sessions to help clients get up to speed in particular areas, and support new members of the client team with familiarisation days in the agency.

10. Above all, be aware of other pressures. Agencies, particularly account handlers, need to understand that they only see the thin end of the wedge when it comes to the pressure on a client. We represent a fraction of their responsibilities and sometimes clients aren’t able to respond as quickly as we might like.

Think about how you deal with your suppliers, screen their calls when not convenient and so on. Sometimes it is just part and parcel of effective time management.


Image: Tecaffect


10 ways to get the most from your agency

With budgets stripped back significantly in most sectors in 2011, marketing departments increasingly have to achieve more from less.

Companies use creative, digital, PR, event and other specialist agencies to help deliver innovative, lead generating marketing campaigns. But often these working relationships are fractious and doomed to failure because time hasn’t been taken to crystallize expectations, processes and procedures.

If you really want to foster a partner relationship with an agency, you need to create an environment and provide the resource and information to give the relationship the best chance of success.

Selecting and working with an agency doesn't have to be a leap of faith

Borne from experience, here is a top ten countdown of where to focus to drive improved collective performance.

1. Know what you want. Provide a written brief. There is no other way of definitively marshalling your thoughts. If you can’t, you have no right to expect an agency to deliver.

2. Run a pitch only if you have the work to award. Too many companies use the pitch process inappropriately either for self aggrandizement or to generate ideas that the in-house team can then implement. Worse still, pitches are used when the scope of business is not in proportion to the investment on the part of the agency.

3. Value their expertise. Just like you in your chosen marketplace, good agencies have honed their service offering, often have good contacts and have worked to develop enduring third party supply relationships to offer a full service.

4. Respect ‘the going rate’. Consequently, there is a financial value of investing that time to ensure your business is competently and diligently supported. Focusing too much on the price risks your credibility in the negotiation and your reputation in the longer term.

5. Commit. Sign NDAs and contracts and then ‘open up’.  Formalise the working procedure and then forget about them. Host the agency at your offices and lead immersion sessions to bring them up to speed. Few will understand your business and market better than you – despite their lofty claims.

6. Agree deliverables and metrics at the outset. Working towards commonly agreed goals and set objectives makes it easier to measure effectiveness after the event.

7. Nominate ‘go-to’ contacts who are always available to input, feedback comment, recommend and cajole client side contacts to get things to get done.

8. Build socializing time into your relationship. Teams that enjoy downtime together are more likely to work better.

9. Encourage and reward creative thinking.

10. Feedback on performance… and take agency feedback to improve the relationship.


Ten ways to improve business efficiency and profit

Conventional wisdom suggests that in times of economic downturn we should shut up shop, limit expenditure and curtail growth and the exploration of opportunity.

Yet brands such as Hyatt, Burger King, FedEx, Microsoft, HP and GE are heralded as recession start ups that went on to be world beaters. And currently companies like Groupon, Zynga (‘Farmville’), Twitter, Asana and Ustream are securing funding and growing exponentially.

Here’s my take on ten business issues that if handled well, could stimulate greater productivity, efficiency and steer your business to greater profit.

1. Have a vision

Having strategic vision is central to all business success. Any entrepreneur will tell you that whilst there may have been some luck, they knew exactly what they wanted to do and where they wanted to arrive. Have something to work towards however small, lofty or material!

2. Share your vision

Seems obvious but do all your employees know unequivocally want you want to achieve? What about your customers, suppliers, partners? Imagine the opportunities if you shared your vision with them and made them stakeholders in your future success. It’s a controversial approach and could be taken in steps, but if you don’t commit plans to paper and them voice them, there is a great risk they won’t amount to anything.

3. Key account vs. any account

Is your business model to work hard with a small number of market leading bigger spenders, or a large pool of smaller customers. There are merits of both approaches but it might be time to rethink this now.

4. Inhouse vs. outsourced

In a bid to keep control of costs, you may be keeping everything inhouse but in so doing you are lacking the clarity and expertise that could be brought to bear by third parties. It might be in your interests to outsource some aspects of your business – accounts, debt chasing, marketing, IT, human resources to dedicated specialists so you can concentrate on production, quality and providing superior customer service. Think about where your people are deployed and where the bottlenecks are.

Tim Ferris penned an interesting book, The Four Hour Week on the power and freedom that can be created by extreme outsourcing. Ultimately it comes down understanding and appreciating the value of time and what your time is best spent doing?

5. Actual vs. virtual

In the new converged global economy, the ability to create a business and to work more nimbly and flexibly than slow lumbering competitors with huge overheads that are passed onto customers has never been easier.

Do you need a physical location to drive your business, and can it be delivered virtually. Sure there will be a need for key back-office functions, but the pride of having leafy, fully furnished offices, a car park full of expensed cars and the latest computer technology are simply folly. And you’ll have to work harder to pay for it all.

6. Software vs. the cloud

Software and licenses are a massive cost to business, depending on what sort of activities your company is engaged in you will be spending many thousands on Microsoft, Adobe and other packages.

An increasing number of companies are moving to the cloud and utilizing platforms like Google Docs which work with traditional branded products. And companies are migrating databases, email design and campaign management, dispatch and analytics online too, with Salesforce, DotMailer, and Campaign Monitor amongst the most popular.

7. Development vs. recruitment

A new recruit can cost salary + 25% or more in the first year alone if sourced using a recruitment agent. And there are no guarantees that there will be a good cultural fit or that they will perform in the role. So that 3-6 months looking, and 3-12 months of learning curve just cost you 18 months. Better to develop passionate individuals, like at BDB, where most recruits are language graduates who are put through the Chartered Institute of Marketing and grounded in marketing and PR on international client accounts.

8. Traditional vs digital marketing

The obvious answer is both, but integrated and linked to measurable objectives so you can be sure you are doing the right things to move the business in the right direction and towards your vision. Advertise selectively to drive awareness and interest, use PR to build reputation, attend trade shows and virtual events to showcase yourself, develop social media profiles to support search engine optimisation and audience engagement and launch a relationship management program to tie in customers and warm prospects.

9. Outbound vs inbound

Outbound, though still relevant, is declining as cold calling is being replaced by warm social media generated lead generation. Investment in inbound content driven marketing initiatives like blogs, white papers, video, webinars to drive engagement all take time but separate innovative, leading companies from the aspirational, the restricted and the lazy.

10.  Multiple agencies vs. single agency

If you are outsourcing, are you getting best value. Agencies are naturally inquisitive, challenging and competitive. If you run a pool of agencies are the responsibilities clearly delineated and understood by all? Do you provide clear transparent briefs that are understood? Perhaps your business doesn’t warrant several suppliers and would benefit from one supplier developing a deeper relationship with you? It will certainly save you time and money.

Much of this post is about focus. Doing the same in 2011 isn’t going to be enough. Equally though, deviating from what you do well isn’t a smart approach either. The businesses that will thrive are those that make the best use of their people, their contacts, their creative thinking and emerging technology. But isn’t that how its always been?

Top image  Smart Garment People

Learning from Unilever’s creativity in numbers

A recent article in the UK’s Marketing magazine (28 April 2010) reported on how Unilever is experimenting on a global level with crowd sourced creative after successfully trialing smaller campaigns in 2009 with Peperami and Lipton Tea.

The brief which is available from partner MOFILMs website is asking for content based on 13 of its most famous global brands including Ben & Jerry’s, Dove deodorant (Real Women campaign pictured), Knorr, Sure, Sunsilk and Vaseline.

At first glance, it seems preposterous that one of the world’s largest advertisers should commit to paying out a modest £70,000 in receipt for a raft of creative ideas whilst risking significant brand damage and upsetting its roster of global brand partners.

There are undoubted economic and creative opportunities for Unilever as a client in running such a scheme.

For one, it heralds a shift in the subsidization of fat cat agencies, their bloated structures and network models. Rather than paying for 24:7 access and the staffing of agency offices across the globe that arguably spend more time biccuring internally over Unilever P&L, Unilever are paying solely for ideas generation within the crowd sourced model.

Secondly, there is an empowering injection of work into the global creative industry at a more micro level. It affords creatives previously shut out with an opportunity to work with Unilever brands. This alone should stimulate some fascinating creative content.

Thirdly, in a recessionary economy, Unilever’s decision to review their marketing spend and in some respects ‘work smarter’ is natural and is likely to have a positive effect on margins. In time could it perhaps even equate to lower consumer prices at the till?

Critics argue that these schemes don’t take into account strategic planning or implementation, areas which do clearly require further consideration. Perhaps though, that is and should always be the remit of the in-house marketer? What we can be assured of is crowd sourced content is here to stay.

What can we take from this? That crowdsourcing only works when you have the brand equity to support it to start with? No, I think most brands could utilise this approach to generate some additional ideas – think about running a graduate program through your local college / university. It gives the students some valuable real life experience, and it provides you some fresh creative perspective and regional kudos!

Excellent client service

Agencies sometimes get the concept of client service confused with maximising client profitability. They are linked from the perspective that happy clients are often spending clients but a good client service strategy shouldn’t unduly impinge or impact on your client relationship.

Clients can be confused and concerned about sudden changes in agreements, retainers, rates and personel so minimise any risk by putting in place a client service plan and then deliver against it.

1. Introduce Standard Agreements / Service Level Agreements for all new clients only, and roll them out gradually to existing clients of a certain size. SLAs are different to contracts (unless a retainer is involved) as they should talk more about service, responsiveness, policy and process.
2. Create tailored KPIs for each client (internal KPIs for the agency as well as KPIs you can share with the client to demonstrate your superior focus on measurement and their ROI). See my post in Principles on KPIs.
3. Create and then review a rate card of staff rates and include a transparent discount structure based on specific and quantifiable volume of work.
4. Evaluate and continually re-evaluate each client’s pricing based on the previous and predicted levels of support.
5. Produce rolling annualised internal plans, linking in to deliverable KPIs, with a quarterly focus.
6. Agree status reporting intervals and level of telephone and face to face contact with each client.
7. Provide transparent financial reporting and regular billing intervals. This helps to create more frequent billing where appropriate (to aid cash flow). Ensure invoices link to quotes and have all the right information to be quickly processed.
8. Working on a retainer basis provide long term security but often on reduced rates. Decide if retainers can work in your business and migrate larger clients to them.
9. Develop client optimisation plans (internal documents highlighting opportunity areas for each client) with the express aim of locking them in with additional and previously unused services.
10. Install effective, regular and added value customer relationship management with all clients & prospects (can be as simple or complicated as you choose).
11. Create a referral reward scheme and encourage referrals (this is the easiest way to secure new business).
12. Encourage trial & take up by providing a limited number of taster workshops, white papers, meetings.
13. Provide proactive reiews of clients, their business and challenges once a year.
14. Put in place a rigorous client feedback process right from first project, to six month and twelve month reviews, compiled in advance on both sides and discussed face-to-face.
15. Overhaul your website – bring in external support (most agencies are poor at managing their own site), add a client login area, add a blog that anyone can post to, and use social media to provide and promote incoming links.
Some small, some large, most relevant and at the heart of delivering excellent client service in the information age.

Principles of marketing 14: How to be a good client

As a marketer, there will be times when you’ll need to engage suppliers. Don’t sully your personal or company reputation by being a bad client.

As Seth Godin wrote on his blog on 2 December, a client’s job is to foster innovation but not actually be innovative.

There is indeed a big difference between the two. Here’s my take on how to be a good client from fifteen years experience of working with good, bad and indifferent ones:

1. Write down what you want. Agency partners will go the extra mile for clients that are fair and know what they want. Don’t expect your agency to fathom what you want from a sketchy brief. This results in unclear ground, unchecked expectations and problems in your relationship.

2. Review and dumb down what you want, so what you get is categorically what you want. Nobody wants to spend time working on the wrong thing.

3. Make yourself available. Don’t assume you’ve done your bit in briefing. Good partners will have a ton of questions regardless of how thorough you think your brief is – and you should encourage it and answer them all.

4. Hire someone with a track record. If you can’t settle on one, select two but do the decent thing and give them both a paying gig so they have something to invest in. You’ll get better end deliverable. Agencies rightly despise pitches as a necessary evil giving time/resource and creative ideas away for free with no guarantee and no protection of their intellectual property.

5. Be prepared to pay the going rate, or a rate relative to the service, resource and value on offer.

6. Don’t make unreasonable ‘creatively stifling’ demands on your agency partner. Remember why you are outsourcing this specialist requirement in the first place.

7. Celebrate milestones throughout the course of the project and don’t just wait for the end result. Doing this brings the team closer together and encourages everyone to work harder and smarter.

8. Manage the internal communication of what you are doing externally. This ensures everyone from your sales teams right the way to the guys who answer the phones and make deliveries understand who you are, what you stand for and what you are trying to communicate. Too many companies fall at this critical hurdle.

9. Support your agency with recommendations, testimonials and referrals if they have done an excellent job for your brand, and personally for you. All good agencies work on the maxim of only being as good as their last job so this is very important to them.

10. Above all, be positive and enjoy what you’re creating.

Winning the pitch

winning pitch marketing assassin blogHaving already won one new piece of business for my new company in my first few weeks, I’m now pitching for an old client. This is a large, long term account and I know that my contact is keen to move, but switching remains a risk for him.

I need to follow a process that paints us in the best possible light, reassuring him that we can deliver what he wants, showing we understand his business and the needs of his customers, and ultimately convincing him that he has made the right decision to entrust his marketing activity with us.

People write 250 page books on this stuff that go into the nth degree. I thought I’d share a ten point plan developed over time, as lots of companies slip up when they prepare for a pitch and end up way off message.

Why? They stray off brief and try and position as more strategic or take a kitchen sink approach and deliver a 140 slide PowerPoint that talks mostly about themselves and not about how they add value or how they make a difference for customers.

1. Do your homework. Understand the customer, the market and the competition. But don’t regurgitate it back to the prospect – they know more about their business than you ever will. That isn’t the reason you’re pitching.

2. Answer the brief. Structure your response to answer their questions, minimize their concerns and in a way so they can tick every box. Makes it harder for you to be discounted.

 3. Link everything you present intrinsically back to marketing objectives. Plain and simple.

 4. Engage with the client, develop a relationship pre-pitch, share your work with them, share a project plan. Give them the sense you are taking it seriously and that you are working to secure their business.

 5. Don’t develop your campaign in isolation. How often do you see pitch creative that isn’t fit for purpose or fit for market. I’m thinking of suppliers to the oil and gas sector using oil rigs in their ads – flick through Offshore Engineer – every ad looks the same.

 6. Don’t use a template. Tailor your response to the needs of your prospect.

 7. Bring it to life. Theme it. Have a powerful, engaging introduction that demands attention. The first few minutes are crucial. Keep PowerPoint/Keynote to a minimum. Use short, relevant video and animation but make sure it has a point or presenters following it just end up sounding flat.

 8. Ensure the delivery team are involved – not just company directors. Building chemistry is a big part of winning the pitch. If you don’t have people who can present with passion and professionalism, train them (and see point 9). Charisma can be coached – it is a breed of confidence. Assign roles to everyone in the room, don’t have team members sat listening for the duration of the presentation.

 9. Practice, practice, practice. And think about difficult questions and objection handling. Assume the worst – prepare answers for questions about costs, timelines, project management, distance, and anything else that could be considered an issue.

 10.  Have a close. Tell him how excited you are and how you want to work with them. A well known sales ploy is to simply ask ‘Can we work with you on this project?’

 Hope this plan is of use to you in your business pitching.

Spin and perception

gordon-brown1So The Sun newspaper has come out in favour of David Cameron’s rebranded Tory party for the next election. We should have realised as much when they started running pictures of tired, glum, weary Gordon Brown and nice, smily shiny pictures of a fresh David Cameron. The ‘kingmakers’ are going with the favourite.

This is not a political blog. This is merely a topical example of the power of spin and the power of publicity.

In marketing, perception is very often reality, and the shinest agencies pick up the lucrative contracts and then often fail to deliver them because their ability failed to live up to the hype. They weren’t all that creative, weren’t that strategic, not quick enough answering the phone, too expensive, and generally not very transparent in their dealings. They took senior executives to the pitch and then passed the account to middle and junior executives to deliver. This explains why so many brands go out to pitch so often.

If you’re a client with a marketing brief, don’t be dazzled by the bright lights, big brand experience, shiny offices, shinier officers, even the relevant sector experience. Look for an agency partner with demonstrable experience in lots of sectors – it shows understanding, flexibility and application. Be concerned if you’ll be their largest client or one of their smallest. Ask for real tangible return on investment statistics and ask to talk to their clients.

If you’re an agency, dare to dream but stick to your core strengths and build on them, whether they are specialism or sector based. When you get caught out and exposed, it affects the perception that client side marketers have of the whole industry. And then the media get stuck in and spin it all out of our control.

The Assassin on thought leadership

thought leadershipThought leadership. Can it really be planned and managed or is it more coincidental, accidental, natural?

PR agencies pride themselves in convincing clients that they should spend vast amounts of money on becoming a thought leader, an expert, a trusted advisor. This is seemingly achieved through proactive and reactive means by authoring articles, commenting on other people’s articles, stimulating discussion, giving Q&As, presenting at seminars and conferences and developing relationships with publication and web editors and trade associations.

But isn’t leadership by its nature innate?

The best and most prominent leaders (Jobs, Welch, Clinton, Obama) have charisma and a desire to change things for the better at their core. They naturally assume this position. They are bold, innovative, embracing of change, comfortable in the limelight, comfortable putting themselves up for discussion and debate and can handle constructive criticism.

A PR makeover of a business leader might even be seen as a cynical sales ploy in today’s business climate. You can spot them a mile off when they still talk about how great their business is at X rather than talking about customer needs and issues.

That said some of those techniques – like innovating with authoring white papers, giving seminars and lecturing – are ways to improving your profile. And the Marketing Assassin loves these, because though they are a bit of work, you can implement them yourself FOR FREE.

Have you contacted your local college or university to see if there are course leader, lecturing spots in your subject expert area? What about being on the local board of your professional organisation? Or presenting a seminar to your local Chamber of Commerce group?

Chase those agencies and their lofty, expensive PR strategies away and focus on what you’re good at and how you can help others within your business network. Thats how real thought leaders do it.