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Sunday, October 21, 2012

The War Within Ad Agencies


Over the last few years a war has erupted within U.S. advertising agencies. It does not get a lot of press but I have observed it personally and, in recent weeks, have been warned about it by media salespeople, a few clients, and media and creative staffers at agencies.

The issue that caused the friction is the role of digital in annual planning. For decades, deciding on a proper media mix has always been something of an art although analytic tools made it a lot easier until about 10 years ago. Then, we moved in to the Internet age and now even the most moribund brands are entering the digital era.

The problem that I have seen and hear about weekly these days is that the conventional teams in both media and creative can not get along with the digital teams in both disciplines. Part of this is due to a generation gap. At many shops, an old-line media director may be 55-60 years old and the digital media maven may be 29. The old boy or lady is used to summoning the staff and giving direction and playing the key arbiter on all media mix decisions.  Now, the digital people are fighting back and, increasingly, there is bad blood between them.

Sales people who sell properties with many platforms go to a shop and are surprised when only the conventional team shows up. After the meeting, they ask the media chief if they should try and go see the digital media manager or director. Time and again they are told something like “why bother.” If they push things a bit and say that their company’s offerings can straddle both disciplines, they may be dismissed or shown the door quickly. When they do get to see the digital players who tend to be much younger, a snarky comment about the old fossils down the hall is often part of the session. This is sad and really destructive. There is a childish turf battle going on and the client is not always getting the best plan of the combined brainpower that is often considerable.

Friday, an agency CEO called me to talk about the issue. His is not a big shop so the people work on top of one another and he only has a few digital media folks and a slightly larger creative team. At a recent new business pitch, the media director folded his/her arms (I have promised not to give out any clues about identity) and looked away while the young digital manager confidently walked through his presentation. When he concluded the client prospect turned to the media director and said something like “you don’t like him too much, do you.” The media veteran denied it but the client prospect told my friend that it sealed the deal against his shop. He also added that he and his marketing team have been struggling to work out how much of their budget should go to digital platforms and needed a new agency to help them. He finished, and I paraphrase, “if your people cannot even be comfortable sitting in the same room with each other, how can they hammer out a solid plan for us with lots of give and take?”  Needless to say the moderate sized marketer went elsewhere. My friend says that he will decide for 2013 how much of each client’s budget will go to legacy media and how much to digital. He is worried that he is not qualified to play Solomon. He will play it straight and do what he sincerely thinks is right for his clients. My idea is maybe that he needs to make a personnel change or two.

Similar knife fights go on among creative teams unless a strong creative chief can keep everyone in check. It is not so bad at small shops where the director calls the shots and does a lot of the work. But once you get to midsized, there can be a lot of backbiting. Again, the client suffers (it reminds me of the two major political parties not compromising and making hard decisions on our budget deficits and entitlement problems. The good of the country always seem to take a back seat).

Forever, people have always said that the assets of an advertising agency go up and down on the elevator each day. So, you need to hire people who are crossbred, are not set in their ways, and are willing to work together even if their pet discipline gets a smaller part of the pie than it did last year. Hybrid media and creative pros need to emerge and fast.

This leads us to another issue. Agency structures were designed for a world that is gone. All of us wrap our arms around technology or at least pay lip service to it. But, many agencies need to be reorganized if they are to bring in new talent. Ever wonder why people go to smaller digital only shops for certain projects? A lot of great emerging talent is there and they give fast and cost efficient service.  And, they are not going to thrive in a traditional setting where a mossback of a media or creative chief thinks that they are trendy if they put 4% of the budget in mobile.

The other day someone wrote to me that he needs someone to translate his print ads for mobile. I laughed out loud when I read it. He totally misses the point. There are no walls to content. Something has to be developed that is uniquely designed for the mobile medium. He stubbornly wants to put a square peg in a round hole.

Look, we all know that we are in a transition period. But, the old guard need to take the “learn digital or die” warning seriously. The next few years will be choppy for both the economy and the agency business. If you are to survive or your shop is, you need to come up with some hybrid type model that takes us to the next great upheaval.

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

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