Ad Agencies Have a Relationship Problem

I’ve never seen the play I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, but its title has come to mind during more than a couple recent conversations when the topic of traditional advertising agencies and their clients comes up. If I were to write a play about the ad business today, I’d call it I Like You Sometimes, You Cost Too Much For What You Deliver, And If You Change, I’m Leaving You. Clearly my title is not as catchy as the original, but I think it sums up the situation; fundamentally, most advertising agencies have a relationship problem with their clients. (I say most, not all. If you’ve got examples of good agency/client relationships, please send me an email. Better yet, post a comment about it.)

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now ChangeClients who have existing relationships with agencies are seldom willing to accept radically different solutions from those agencies because doing so breaks the rules that govern the relationship. When agencies break the rules by behaving in unexpected ways, i.e. delivering radical solutions rather than the expected ones, at a minimum they are not taken seriously and in some case they are punished for it.

Unfortunately, that’s just human behavior.

Think about any person in your life with whom you’ve had a long relationship and now imagine that over the course of a few days they’ve radically changed somehow and are acting in an unexpected way. What type of change? To make it interesting, let’s say they’ve suddenly converted to some new religion which requires serious evangelizing or maybe they’ve discovered they’ve got to have a sex change to fully express who they are. Maybe it’s both. When that person suddenly starts breaking the rules you have both abided by in your relationship, you become wary of that person. You might even think they’d lost their marbles.

Ad agencies haven’t lost their marbles though. Agencies get a lot of flack for not understanding the state of the digital world, but I’ve been inside a lot of them and there are some really smart people there. Putting their new media understanding to practical application has been difficult because delivering solutions based on that knowledge isn’t what’s expected of them. Their current clients see the agency as delivering a particular thing which is probably what attracted them to the agency in the first place, be it TV ads, media buys, banner ads, Flash web sites, or whatever. Clients expect to keep receiving that same exact thing from that relationship. Agencies might believe the thing they deliver is “great ideas to solve marketing problems” but clients are just people and people tend to remember the concrete deliverable, a TV spot or an online banner campaign with a landing page, rather than the intangible, an idea or concept that led to an execution (i.e. that damn TV ad).

As Not Seen On Dr. PhilWhat’s an ad agency with an identity crisis to do? If you think about this as a real-world relationship, the answer is pretty clear. That doesn’t make for an easy solution to follow through with though.

Let’s think about you and your friend again who’ve had that long-standing relationship. This time, it’s not your friend who’s suddenly started acting in unexpected ways; it’s you who has realized something’s changed in your life and to be true to your beliefs you need to start expressing yourself in a completely new way. How to do you handle this old relationship? What do you do?

Option #1:

The give-into-the-fear approach. The easiest short-term choice is to choose not to tell your friend that things have changed. You can go on acting the way around him as you always have but your focus on maintaining that relationship will wain and the truth will start to show through lack of attention. The longer this goes on the more you just want to get as far away from this relationship as possible.

Option #2:

The one-day-at-a-time approach. Don’t get too hasty. You can take gradual path towards revealing the new you to your old friend. Maybe you’re just going through a phase anyway, right? You can drop hits about new outlook on life and hope your friend is receptive but you can still go out to the same old hangouts and still do a lot of the familiar things. In the short term, things are going to be fine. You need to be careful to not backslide into your old ways though. It’s easy to confuse slow progress with no progress.

Option #3:

The we’ve-got-to-talk approach. This is where you drop the bomb and see how strong your relationship really is. You are either going to make or break this relationship. If it goes all wrong, this whole thing could be history. You and your friend part and go forward following your own paths. If it goes well though, the benefits could be tremendous for both of you.

When it comes to the business relationships, what options do agencies chose? Small steps or no steps at all seem like a risky way to move forward in the digital space which is known for moving very fast.

An ad agency that goes for option #1 or #2 should work overtime at forging new client relationships that let them be the new-media-savvy shop they really are deep down. Of course, if they choose option #3 with at least one current client and the meeting goes well, they’re much more likely to have tangible experience with a long-standing client that will benefit them with getting those new clients who share their point of view.

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