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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Zombies Among Us

I have never been a fan of horror movies. Some aficionados say that they hit their zenith in my formative years in the 1950’s but I generally avoided them. The real fans often say the best movies were the “Zombie films” and I must say the 1943 classic “I Walked with a Zombie” was memorable and scary. A zombie was a dead creature that was somehow reanimated via voodoo or other intervention.

Over the last 20 years, the term zombie has been used in much business writing. It first surfaced talking about Japanese banks that were overextended. Currently, in the US, it has found some popularity as our financial crisis refuses to go away. Financial writer John Lancaster describes a zombie as “a bank which is dead—insolvent—but has a horrible sort of pseudo-life because it is being allowed to keep trading by an overindulgent government.” As we hear stories of banks not contacting some people a year or more behind on their mortgages we know that there are zombie banks among us. Somebody is clearing hiding something under that scenario.

But what about our industry? Are there zombies in evidence in communications? I would say yes but in a slightly different way. There is no benevolent federal government propping them up to save face or avert a panic, but if you look closely, you can see the lumbering zombies.

A few weeks ago, I traveled north and checked out several small town city newspapers that were dailies. In the past, I never had huge admiration for their editorial product but they did work hard to cover the nation superficially and give solid local coverage. Today, they are mere shells. The national and state news was 100% wire service copy and the local news was scant. The editorial page was vapid and had syndicated columnists to fill in the blank space. One of the papers was only 16 pages. It was sad as it has been around for 140 years but the paper is really a zombie.

There have been zombie radio stations for years and now, with syndicated music, many have but a handful of employees. But the agency world is where there are many zombies in evidence. There are organizations that bill themselves as full service advertising agencies. They have 4-7 full time employees. Creative, conventional media, digital activity and marketing research are all outsourced but in many cases they do not tell their clients. They are in essence consulting firms. There is nothing wrong with being a consultant but when you speak to some of them they all say they will soon claw their way back to full agency status.

Strange charades are played. For new business pitches, the different disciplines are represented by freelancers and comical things often happen when “team” members stumble over each others names or who does what. They also cannot guide their new business prospects to the men’s room! In some cases, the handful of actual agency staffers present all the work, the strategies and the media and the freelancers are never seen.

Please do not misunderstand. There is nothing wrong with consulting firms. Some provide marvelous service and the motley crew of seasoned pros who make up their small roster of players could never work for a conventional agency again. But, many do not sell themselves as such. They would prefer to be zombie agencies rather than tell prospects what they really are. Some candor would help. Yes, they would lose out on some pitches for new business. But, if they told the truth, they could spin their appeal by saying that their small team of battle scarred veterans could pick the best players from each discipline that fit a prospect’s specific needs. Sadly, it rarely happens.

Finally, may I give a nod of admiration to some very small firms that do excellent work for their client base? When a project gets too big or the needs are too specialized they do not hesitate to go outside their walls for help but tell the clients what they are up to from day one. And, I know of two cases where companies with fewer than 10 people still do amazing work across all disciplines. Their real appeal is strong hands on service from agency principals and, no matter their age, they still are eager to learn and respond to change.

So, be careful when screening new agencies. They could be small packages of marvelous dynamite or they could be the zombies among us.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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