This Much I’ve Learned – Part One: Agencies

I’ve been in the ad business almost 50 years, starting as a messenger in an ad agency in the days when the UK had one commercial TV channel, and no commercial radio stations. Despite myself I’ve absorbed lessons, and so from time to time I’m going to devote the Cog Blog to attempting to summarise a few things I’ve learned.

This first go focuses on agencies. Later subjects will include people management, research, and media vendors.

  1. Whilst it’s clearly silly to say that one channel or a thousand makes no difference, it is true that basic media principles still apply, regardless of how many outlets exist.
  2. We were always rubbish at understanding how media forms work in combination; let alone what happens when you add channels like PR or events to the mix. We still are.
  3. Ad campaigns work best when media and creative work together. Forget digital re-targeting, tracking, micro-precision-targeting, questionable data claims. Nothing beats a great idea, placed in the most appropriate position.
  4. Separating media from creative was a bad idea. That said it happened and there’s no point whining on about ‘the good old days’ (especially as they weren’t universally wonderful). What needs to happen is to recreate the working partnership that existed between the best creatives and the best comms planners.
  5. The network agencies talk of integration, whereas what they actually mean is ‘give me all of it; even if I don’t know what to do with it.’ True integration means finding a way for the best talent to work together whatever the organisational structure in which that talent sits.
  6. The giant media agencies had a choice. Build up relationships with creative talent or try to sell additional services to their clients around the media process. At one stage a media agency in London of my acquaintance had 11 separate internal profit centres. How can internal squabbling over who can charge extra for what help the client?
  7. Agencies have flourished when they’re focussed on doing their best for their clients. Back in the dark ages, ad agencies only built networks because their clients wanted them to open offices to match where the client had a need. Move away from serving client needs and you fail. It might take a while, but you’ll fail.
  8. Once you’ve failed (and a US FBI enquiry would suggest that the media agency world has at the very least a major problem), you can rebuild in the image you should have been aiming for in the first place. There are signs this is starting to happen.
  9. Agencies (creative as well as media) are potentially great places to work. It used to be that the word ‘potentially’ was un-necessary. Agencies were fun, relaxed, hard-working, hard-playing places full of creative thinking, interesting people across all disciplines. Some still are.
  10. But far too many aren’t – they’re more serious, more corporate, less fun, and as a result less creative. You need the right atmosphere for creative thinking to flourish, and we are at risk of losing the ingredients that are essential for advertising to work.
  11. The business used to be about people; those in it and those we were trying to reach and influence. These days it’s more about data, algorithms and meaningless gross impression numbers. Which is sad, a major step backwards and needs to change.
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