'Factories and brilliance are not mutually exclusive' – M&C Saatchi, Grey London, Brothers & Sisters, Iris, FCB Inferno, Dare & IPA on ISBA report that clients see agencies as factories

With research from ISBA suggesting that brands treat agencies like ‘factories’, we asked some of the biggest creative agencies their thoughts.

The research suggested that bigger agencies are seen as TV-centric, while smaller agencies come across as media neutral. It was also proposed that larger agencies are less collaborative than smaller agencies.

Debbie Morrison, director of consultancy and best practice at ISBA, said that this was leading to a “dangerous emerging precedent”, giving “the perception amongst clients that their creative agencies have lost the high ground in ideas generation, profundity of thinking and proactivity”.

However, major agencies such as M&C Saatchi and Iris suggest that being thought of as a factory is not such a problem.

Matt Charlton, chief executive, Brothers and Sisters

I don’t really know what this means. I fear it is a research effect. e.g. if you put in a question asking if you think of your agency like a factory, a certain number of clients will answer yes. I can’t believe that any of them actually do.

The reason for that is that most clients I meet are intelligent smart people who understand the irrationality of the creative process and hence can spot the massive difference. One of the great truths in advertising is clients get the work they deserve. Usually true. So if a client were to think of an agency like a factory then don’t be surprised if the work is dull, mass produced and robotic.

Agencies are often the opposite of most of their clients and quite rightly so. That’s why we are valuable to them. I don’t really have anything else to say except I have never thought of any of my clients as factories even if they are actually factories. So in summary, it’s a stupid question.

Tom Bazeley, chief executive, M&C Saatchi

One of the most exciting things about working in this industry is that we don’t know what type of advertising we’ll be making this time next year.

As media and technology jump about all over the place, so do the potential means for an idea to live.

It’s creatively rewarding and keeps everyone on their toes. In my experience, when a client and agency both embrace this, the creative development and production process is non-linear and certainly doesn't feel like a factory conveyor belt. In other words, brief an agency with a problem to solve not a format to fill.

Chris Baylis, executive creative director, Iris

It appears that whilst agencies have been talking themselves upstream, clients’ perception of their agencies have been quite the opposite. Agencies talk about being partners, helping clients innovate and solving business problems. But clients now live in a world where their business models can be turned upside down by innovative competitors in months rather than years. Nokia phone anyone?

Clients need to stay ahead, move fast - outpace the business cycle. Internally, individual clients are measured by strict KPI’s that target growth, speed and market share. If I was a client in today’s business environment, would I want a craftsman next to me or a factory? I think we’d all like a factory wouldn’t we? (Are clients’ factory comments merely wish fulfillment rather than a slight on the creative industries?)

Crispin Porter famously described itself as a creative factory. It was tooled up to make amazing creative product. And it did. The factory analogy sat well with an always-on agency in an always-on world, but importantly they billed clients by the idea, not the hour. They charged for what came off the production line, not how long it took to make it.

There is nothing wrong with being thought of as a factory. Bugattis are made in factories as well as Ford Fiestas. It’s down to the agency to understand what its product is, how it can successfully charge for that product and convince their clients that they are worth it. Factories and brilliance are not mutually exclusive.

John Owen, executive partner, Dare

Sadly this report doesn’t surprise me. A combination of factors is to blame, but a primary one is the pressure clients are now under. Marketing departments are more stretched than even – as more is demanded of them, faster, in an environment that’s changing constantly. They need agencies more than ever.

But that doesn’t mean they need more agencies than ever. The fragmentation of specialisms only adds to the client’s list of problems – giving them more relationships to nurture than they can cope with, resulting in the failure to build trust with any.

And the same fragmentation – drawn along the lines of production output rather than strategic input – means that agency strategists are really just planning communications tactics in their disciplines. Hence, the perceived decline in strategic prowess and the soundbite about agencies becoming “factories”.

The green shoots are in there too, however. Newly appointed agencies are reported to be more digitally literate and media neutral in their thinking. True media neutrality involves going deeper than comms, into shaping the customer experience. Agencies which can do this will stand a good chance of becoming truly valued strategic partners again.

Chris Hirst, chief executive, Grey London

To an extent client organisations and agencies have always been oil and water – ostensibly similar, but ultimately very different. These differences have always led to debates (especially in finance departments) around where, how and how much creativity ads value to the bottom-line. In this sense surveys such as this should be no great surprise.

Agencies' raison d'être is the transformational power of a creative idea, the best agencies and the best campaigns should pay heed to client concerns, but at the same time take encouragement. We could hear it as a client community that is losing faith in creativity – or we could read it as a client community that is asking for more, better ideas. Certainly this year’s particularly heated debate around christmas campaigns shows creative ideas can continue to make fast and very visible impacts when done well.

Tim Doust, founding partner, FCB Inferno

It was only a year after ISBA’s last survey that Inferno opened its doors. From the off we were committed to being open and collaborative with clients, we can’t imagine a relationship being viable otherwise. I can only speak from experience but we have enjoyed great partnerships with the vast majority of our clients, though we have worked (and work) hard to earn this position of trust. The survey does identify very real modern hurdles, adapting to digital being an obvious one. Since the FCB Inferno merger we are now pretty unique, offering a total 360 service to our clients under one P&L. This is what BMW was looking for, everything from CRM to TV.

Beyond all else, the value of an agency’s culture is of paramount importance. The spirit of our agency allows clients to feel at home, it’s not unusual to see some based themselves here for a day, or sometimes a week.

I can only hope that the survey is not indicative of all 954 contacts approached.

Paul Bainsfair, director general, IPA

Surveys are surveys and the role of the agency today is undoubtedly a more complex one. What we do know is that the UK leads the world in understanding marketing payback, and we also know that enlightened clients are asking agencies to help them add value to their businesses. There is evidence all around us that agencies continue to do a brilliant job. The recent IPA Effectiveness Awards are testament to work that works across a plethora of platforms.

If clients want to improve their agency relationships the most important point the survey makes, within what are sometimes conflicting points, is that clients and agencies who have the longest relationship, invest in one another, trust one another and produce the best work. We also know it takes three years to really bed down a relationship and that anything less will be unsatisfactory for both sides.”

This is the message I would like people to take from this survey because it is a universal truth. It is also one that borne out by other surveys including those by business management consultants Aprais, who you could argue have a more statistically valid survey base with over 8,000 respondents.

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