Why agencies are doomed – a Top 5 (+1) list…(Part Three — The Final Frontier)

[Welcome back!  Kicking off this third, and final installment of the series with numbers 6+ on the list of why agencies are doomed (you can find the first part here. part two here — and this again, is the closing installment as there is no point beating a dead horse any longer…]


  • The reality gap

Agencies tend to reside in an alternate dimension in which they view their existence not only classified in terms of “important to marketing”; but that they are integral to the fabric of today’s society (if you want to be entertained watching people manipulate language so that it makes no sense, feel free to click here for just one example that might make you simultaneously laugh & weep…. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

George Parker (who is someone I would consider a “friend” in the ad business – one of the few who is both honest with his words and unvarnished with his opinions – in itself a true rarity, but particularly in regard to the state of business of agencies) has beaten this path before in his excellent blog AdScam where he has covered this topic for a number of years.)

George had an excellent example of this with his recent post on this lovely article on Adweek.com – some of it quoted here:

“We will be driving the creative content strategy and design experiences that will turn ‘Flying reimagined’ into a highly curated, customized experience across the digital ecosystem to satisfy [Etihad’s] business goals,” said Barbarian Group CEO Sophie Kelly. …

“Marketing and analytics to measure the experience we curate will be driven by Barbarian in collaboration with M&C Saatchi in a ‘total communications’ package for the brand,” she said.”

If anyone can decipher these paragraphs to mean anything other than:

“We are going to use digital in attempt make the customer happy (since everyone uses the internet for travel these days), and, in turn, attempt to save the airline money a lot of money and effort doing just that — but you are using two different agencies to do it, so who knows what will happen because we won’t work well together.”

please let me know if I’m off base with that synopsis.

Anyone want to hazard a guess why they don’t use that language (other than the last piece which may contain some editorialising by me)…well it’s beyond my scope of understanding — I’m at a complete loss at my end.  All you end up sounding like it that you are stuck so far up your own arse, you apparently discovered a “buzzword bingo” thesaurus in there.

The way that I personally illustrate this on-going horror show currently is through the modern day marvel of advertising and marketing conferences.

I’ve been to more than a few conferences – even spoken at a few – but I was invited to the ad:tech Australia conference in Sydney this past March to give the keynote on customer experience.

It was a lovely conference setting, put on by a great group of people organising it (truly wonderful people — no snark involved at all) – but I’m not sure how much can actually be gleaned from the two days spent sitting in a hotel ballroom.

I believe it comes down to what you hope to accomplish at a conference at the end of the day:  Is it all a “networking and enjoying your destination away from sitting in the office” exercise – or are you actually looking to learn something that you might be able to apply to your job.  I tend towards the latter when given the choice.

I sat through a variety of sessions over the two days – most of them like watching paint dry, some amusing (the best laughs were for the speaker who used the particulars of Beyonce’s lifestyle as a potential marketing planning tool) — but can’t say I learned anything that stuck with me while I was there – informative or not.

I was interested in speaking at the conference as a way to publicise my new company – because that is how the game is played.

The conference in Sydney was one of the very few that didn’t require the speaker to pay for the privilege which was a nice bonus – because apparently getting in front of this type of audience is worth paying $10,000-$100,000 for some people – although I have no idea why.

Even though the conference makes money from charging exorbitant fees to the attendees, the organisers of most conferences seem to have shifted to the stance of trying to “double dip” on the fees collected.

Their apparent belief is that the gathering of the selected audience (who have already paid money to attend and is not really selected) is alone the sole reason to charge the speakers an “access fee” to said audience; in addition to asking the speakers to develop a multitude of free content for said conference.

(Pro tip: it isn’t worth it – much like agencies have to resist the urge to spend a hell of a lot of money and waste a lot of time on the pitch process, potential speakers should laugh and hang up on conference organisers who ask them to pay to prepare and present for them.  The people in the audience are not the ones that will hire you – they have been sent so the people who are in charge of such decisions don’t have to go.)

The only advertising events the senior executives go to are the award shows like Cannes – where you hear more of what happens on The Promenade de la Croisette the night before, what hotels people are staying at, which celebrities they might have seen, and how much the bar tab was the prior evening – rather than actual educational learning or a healthy and useful exchange of ideas.

At this particular conference in Sydney, it was amusing to watch the keynote presenters from the Fortune 500 companies disappear from the venue within milliseconds of finishing their speech – never to be seen or heard from again – so the opportunity to network with them was a huge fallacy.

Needless to say, the reception to my particular presentation in Sydney went down like a lead balloon (aside from all the technical glitches that hampered the first half of my presentation when the remote to the slide projector was deemed faulty.)

You may ask yourself –”What was the topic I discussed?”   Well, the first words out of my mouth on stage consisted of the content of my first slides:

“So you run your company’s customer experience program…

You are most likely doing it wrong!… 

But it’s not your fault.”

(Presented over three different slides – all in the name of dramatic tension and the like)

Now…that in itself can be seen as confrontational to a set of agency people – and I guess it was to those ad people who had assembled.

Alas I’m not wrong, statistics back me up — not only from consumers, but also the several C-level client-side people I discussed the topic with as I put the presentation together over a period of several weeks with their guidance.  Agencies are not only settling for mediocrity in every phase of their business structure, but seemingly revelling in it.

For example in regards to the conference audience, I asked them a simple question (as I believe the best discussions should be interactive, rather than a lecture format):

“Name some Fortune 500 companies that are regarded as exceptional at delivering customer experience.” 

In an audience of several hundred, they named two companies on the list I’d put together.

This is a list I had compiled with the advice of several other colleagues and a significant amount of research going into it.

When I ask the same question to the general public (which I have done several hundred times over the past couple of years), the general public generally names two as well.

(To be fair, there are only seven companies in the Fortune 500 that we were able to come up with that met the right criteria, but you’d like to think marketers should know more than the general public when it comes to customer experience if they attempt to pass themselves off as well-versed in the subject, and if they are expected to impart their knowledge and deliver solutions to their clients.

The fact that there are only seven also show that there are a vast number of companies who don’t do customer experience well – and that should be seen as an opportunity for them to get in front of their competitors.)

I had discussed the topic of my keynote address with the conference organisers beforehand and let them know that I wasn’t flying around the world to say something pithy for the sake of entertainment – but rather to try to be informative and let them know that I would be taking the approach I was – which I would classify as educational.

They were apparently encouraged by the thought of what I was trying to accomplish – rather than a dull, PowerPoint-inspired droning on which seems to be the normal modus operandi.

A few weeks later, I received the feedback from the conference organisers after my session and my overall emotion was one of amusement – it evoked exactly the type of reaction I thought it might with members of the agency audience.  Apparently I was “overbearing” and “somewhat condescending” to one particular individual audience member in his review.  That being said, they probably learned something – if they took time to listen to it.

I have since walked several client-side senior executives through it post-conference (which they apparently found very enlightening and educational from their perspective); and I am working with a couple of them now to resolve a wide variety of their customer experience issues – so at the end of the day, I’m guessing it was worth it for some — just after the fact apparently to a more focused and engaged audience.  Needless to say, I don’t believe I’m getting an invite back to the conference next year though…


  • A Digital Short

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg on concerns that will eventually kill off agencies (I’m sure if you’ve made it this far in the series, you’ve got a few horror stories that are much more vivid in comparison to my tales.)  Sadly, I haven’t gotten into the digital aspect yet — which is completely beyond the grasp of a vast majority of agencies – “integrated” or otherwise (all of which could cover a series of articles, if not a book, for each issue raised.)

In short (to use the intended pun – and, yes this could be considered another bonus piece beyond the six items I mentioned at the start), no one of any senior value or substance works at a holding company digital agency anymore (ed note: controversial!)

This is due to the agencies generally tending to be two to three years behind the curve on what their clients should be looking at to help them at that moment of time; and the general thought out of the agencies seems to be to copy what they believe have worked for clients before v- be it from their agency or a competitor, rather than looking at new innovative ways to approaching ideas and campaigns.

They’ll be some discussion of being held down by the clients – and that they won’t buy new ways of doing things, so why bother?

But that would be the part of imparting the education and learning aspect of the agency’s job towards their clients, would it not?  The role of the agency is to tell your clients why they should do it, how it works and advise them on the roadmap to getting to where they should be in the marketplace.  Did I miss the memo where the new agency edict was to recycle every well-worn idea until its complete demise?

In addition, from the employee engagement standpoint, today’s agency digital employees have to deal with the over-reaching bureaucracy contained with its offices that leads to a good digital person spending 60-80% of their time wading through the bullshit politics of said agency, rather than doing the actual work for their clamoring clients.

Don’t get me wrong – there are one or two specialist digital agencies now under the banner of holding companies that do good work (and I’m not saying “award winning work” because in advertising, everything can be considered “award winning” as long as you come up with the entry fees for the competition.)

But if you choose to work with them, you are paying an arm & a leg over what you should be because they grew up preying on clients who didn’t know any better at the time – and the fee structures have yet to completely change for good digital work.

They also do “good work” because they don’t deal with interference of having to explain everything they are doing, why they are doing it, how long it will take, who’s involved in the process – to the senior executives and/or “The Suits” in the agency – they just go get it done because they’ve earned some level of “trust” it seems.

Now all this being said, I don’t have the magical answer for what ails agencies these days (and the “top strategic consulting houses” I referred to earlier are just agencies with kids who are a couple of years older, but still have limited to no experience other than a $100K+ tuition bill for the MBA they needed to get hired by said consulting company – it is the same business and organisational model almost to a “T” in both types of conglomerates to be fair.)


Tying it to Customer Experience

So what does this have to do with customer experience then?  Well not a massive amount…but also a fair bit (how is that for an interesting and flexible POV?)

If you look at the client companies as their customers, how are agencies meeting their needs?

Short answer:

They aren’t…and they are getting their comeuppance for it.  The ability to retain clients is at an all-time low, the procurement departments now have sliced agencies fees to the slimmest of margins, the agency is locked out of the decision-making process; in short, the agency is seen as a vendor or supplier, never as a partner.

The customer (aka – the agency clients) have spoken – and the agencies are moving too slow to try and get to where they need to be — to give clients not only what they need now, but anticipate their future needs and desires, even before they understand they need them.

Agencies need to learn to listen to their customers, move to where they need to be, and give them a reason to trust them.  Unfortunately, they are failing in almost every regard of the relationship.  If I was to try and use a real life example of potential change that is afoot:

Like George Parker, I know Carter Murray at FCB – not very well, but have chatted enough to get an initial read of him — and spoken with a few others who have crossed mutual paths.  He seems to have the understanding of what needs to be done at least in some regards of fixing the problem– although to be fair, he has to be handcuffed by the IPG folks along that path that I believe he might be trying to take FCB.

Added to his level of complication is that he has inherited all the legacy folk that helped bring down both FCB and Draft in the first place and has to spend a lot of time (and money) to replace them with folks he thinks can do the job for him (and probably will be doing that for months, if not years, to come.)

The real “$64,000 question” is who breaks first – Carter, or the ones who originally dragged FCB into the toilet (*cough* IPG management *cough*.)  Could be an interesting thing to watch if one was so inclined.

That would be the “new agency” case study I’d be inclined to watch from an industry point of view – if someone like Carter fails, you might as well call agency life “Old Yeller” and take the industry out to the front porch with your shotgun.

 [ed note: As mentioned at the top of the article, this is the last installment of this particular series – once again, you can find the first part here. part two here if you missed them.  I hope you found the series entertaining if nothing else — I’m hoping a number of you “agency veterans” can identify with at least some of the words listed in the series, and if so, my condolences on your past suffering.

I enjoyed reading your comments and the messages I got away from the public posts here too.  I’ll be continuing to write — hopefully banging out one or two posts a week…at least in the downtime of summer.  

But alas, they probably won’t be focused on agencies – but rather my long-standing passion of customer experience.  You can also find posts on my company’s blog here too.  Thanks for reading!]

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