June 30, 2018

By Thomas Barta

Agencies, like brands, need consistency. Agencies used to have access to the C-suite within brands but that’s no longer the case. It’s time for agency leaders to step up and rebuild agency C-suite relevance again.

David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising is still among the world’s most respected marketing books. When I started out as a brand manager, Ogilvy & Mather’s office leader gave it to me in a little ceremony when I met with the agency. As he handed it over I was told: “We want to be your closest ally. But we aren’t here to make fancy advertising – we are here to help you sell.” When I opened the book, a bookmark fell out, reading: “We sell or else – David Ogilvy”.

At first, I wasn’t sure about the Ogilvy guys. The book ceremony felt patronising. Who was the client again? But more frustratingly, Ogilvy had our CEO’s ear. The agency’s senior executives would frequently meet with our CEO, review the business and talk strategy – without us.

In one instance they torpedoed our packaging redesign. Ogilvy feared our customers wouldn’t find the products anymore (they were perhaps right). On these days we hated them. But more often they were brilliant thought partners. They helped us to stay consistent, to keep a broad perspective and, like David Ogilvy had laid out, to sell. Ogilvy, in our company, enjoyed something today’s agencies can only dream of: respect.

Things have changed. How many Fortune 500 CEOs today would be keen to meet with their advertising agencies (unless their spouse has a creative idea)? How many agency executives shape their client’s strategic direction? How many have direct CEO access? The low C-suite respect for ad agencies is a disgrace.

With a big splash, Ogilvy has just announced its global rebranding. Everything I’ve seen is beautiful – and deeply worries me. Agency owners: red is now up for grabs. The iconic red Ogilvy background has gone in a favour of a colour you’ll get when you leave an Ogilvy brochure in the sun for two weeks.

“About Ogilvy” now reads: “We are one doorway to a creative network re-founded to make brands matter in a complex, noisy, hyper-connected world.” Now close your eyes and try to say that again.

But here’s the most worrying message for CEOs: Oglivy is moving away from “we sell or else” to “we change or else”. Seriously?

Sorry, Ogilvy, I’m picking on you as my former poster child. You are still an impressive firm. And other agencies aren’t necessarily better. It’s just that I still believe in consistency, clarity – and in selling. And it’s painful to see you don’t anymore.

Lost in translation

Sir Martin Sorrell, the founder and former CEO of WPP, which owns Ogilvy, recently said agencies are facing the perfect storm, with clients’ pressure to deliver short-term returns, technological disruption and fierce cost-cutting. He’s right. But ad agencies should write the real complaint letter to themselves. Fish rot at the head. The loss of stature and relevance was gradual, and the fault lies with agency leaders (not with the creatives).

There’s now the same (if not more) short-term return pressure on agencies. Many ad executives are mainly chasing work – any work. Losing a client is a revenue disaster. As a result, every trainee marketer can put pressure on the agency. Impartial agency advice and dissent from the client’s view have become the exception.

Technological disruption, for agencies, should be marvellous. Company leaders, more than ever, need partners with a big-picture strategic perspective. But in today’s ad agency world, thought leaders are rare.

C-suite-level thought leadership isn’t something people are born with. Yet few agencies train their staff to develop that thinking. Instead, to be cool, agencies have joined the tactical digital hype. To not lose out, many have sucked up tech-boutiques. When Procter & Gamble last year suddenly cut millions of digital ad spending with no revenue impact, the agency world felt caught-out and kept a low profile. Thought leadership? Look elsewhere.

There was a time when agency and company CEOs met to talk strategy. Today, thousands of agency salespeople pitch nitty-gritty work at marketing departments’ lowest levels. CEOs (and even CMOs) have more important people to meet. And with little C-suite access for agencies, procurement will do what they do best: cut their fees.

But that’s not half of it. Some agencies are now more siloed than their worst clients. Many of their leaders worry most about internal issues: How do we organise? How do we integrate? Of the nine messages in Ogilvy’s rebranding brochure, eight are internal. For example, the move from ‘Creative Department’ to ‘Creative Network’. Influential design expert Armin Vit wrote in his Ogilvy redesign review about ad agencies: “I don’t find them remotely as interesting as they find themselves”.

What’s the ‘value creation zone’?

It’s time for agency leaders to step up and rebuild agency C-suite relevance again. Every CEO wants to sell. Every C-suite leader wants to hear from people who know how to sell. The C-suite door, for real thought leaders, is wide open.

Some weeks ago, I led a thought leadership seminar for agency executives. When I asked “What’s your most strategic client priority?” people said things like “online advocacy”, “in-store journeys”, “brand purpose renewal”. All nice and good, but nothing any CEO would want to meet about.

To matter at the top, an agency must work inside the ‘value creation zone’ – the zone where customer needs and company/CEO needs overlap. That’s why every client team should have a perspective on issues like the risks and opportunities for the client’s business model.

For a car maker, for example, that’s currently not customer experience but issues like electricity versus gasoline, car ownership, autonomous driving. How could the company sell more and better things to more people at a profit? Operationally, how could the company become faster, more efficient?

Within just one day, the executives in our seminar developed a much broader perspective on their clients’ businesses and how their agency could really help (enough to seriously impress the CEO who came to the final presentation).

Just imagine all ad agencies would consistently aim for that CEO discussion. Agency stature, pride, and success would rise. That dialogue would transform an entire industry – for the better.

Only one thing will never change: you sell, or else.

Author

Marketing Leadership Thinker Thomas Barta is the co-author of the CMO leadership book The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader.

 

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