Bad clients get bad work: Here's what good ones want from their agencies

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By Diane Young | Co-founder

June 11, 2013 | 9 min read

Continuing our series from the Mirren Conference in New York, Diane Young reports on what three top companies want from their marketing partners - and why they are sometimes scared by their agencies' ideas.

Axe's infamous 'clean your balls' campaign

Three senior marketers from diverse companies got together with the editor-in-chief of Harvard Business Review, Adi Ignatius, to discuss work, agencies and changing times for marketers. Ignatius was in discussion with Ron Faris, brand marketing director of Virgin Mobile USA; Josh Dean, senior brand director, Axe; and Jim Bacharach, VP brand and communications, John Hancock.

The session kicked off with Ignatius asking Dean about the infamous Axe (Unilever’s men’s toiletry range) ‘clean your balls’ campaign. Created by BBH New York, the campaign was then rolled out (excuse the pun) for Lynx in other world territories. Dean described how they had tasked BBH to create an idea that was unique, memorable and educational, and asked to be scared.

They also specifically asked not to have a TV script. Come the pitch, the agency brought in their chief strategist who acted out the viral script. Dean’s reaction? “Scared shitless. We’ve got to do it.” The campaign went on to create huge amounts of attention with the delight of people sharing it being one thing and the outrage of some adding to the high profile of the video. As Dean admits, not all such campaigns work and said it was then the job of the agency and the marketer to hide that.

Virgin’s Ron Faris observed that there is a big difference between what’s funny and what’s shareable. A marketing joke only works if it travels. In his view the main reasons people share are ‘rubbernecking (look what I just saw)’, ‘I’m thinking for you’ and ‘this thing expresses me’.

Faris, along with Mother New York, was behind the creation of Virgin Mobile’s fake celebrity couple Sparah. This involved taking an unknown couple and turning them into celebrities with a mansion, stylists, and a publicist that followed them around all the time. A series of mockumentary videos recorded their increasing stardom. Faris says that one of the learnings from that campaign was the importance of putting a voice out for the brand and earning a way into the conversation. Virgin now has its own medium, through their mobile feed, which gets 3.5million plus viewers per month.

Listening to this, Jim Bacharach was probably feeling quite envious. John Hancock is a financial services provider and as Bacharach said, once a great idea has been through a dozen financial compliance rounds, it’s often much watered-down from the original idea. His brand mission is to create unshakeable levels of trust. Given that the firm is not the biggest spender and can only take certain types of risks with its marketing, Bacharach is faced with a very different kind of challenge from Dean and Faris.

Recently Bacharach faced a significant test for any brand, as they were lead sponsors of the Boston Marathon. He relates: “My team consists of me and two other people. The volume of work over the days following the marathon was huge and I was extremely proud of the hard work and sensitivity that my team applied to the situation.”

The conversation turned to what these CMOs feel is important for an agency.

Faris gets straight to the point, saying that bad clients get bad work. He wants client and agency side to be co-invested. He hates situations where the agency gets the blame when things go wrong. He thinks that client-side marketers should be protective of their agencies and uses the term hyper-collaborative to describe the ideal working relationship. This applies not only between client and agency, but between agencies.

Virgin Mobile USA has four agencies, and Faris has fostered a situation where the agencies meet and ‘break bread together’ regularly in order to gain the best results. Faris explains that speed is becoming increasingly important. Not only are quick reaction times important but he also says that ‘scrappy sells’ and is more relevant today. As a result the day of the precious creative that must get every little item perfect is past, and agencies need to acquire new skills fast. He is also turned off by agencies that say they can do everything. Having retained agencies is becoming less important than having ‘agencies of impact’. He suggests that agencies should figure out what they can do better than anyone else and forget about their areas of deficiencies – other agencies will cover those.

For Bacharach, with a different scale of team and in a totally different market, he feels that he must be more nimble and so is keen to get a nimble agency. In contrast to Faris, he says that having a range of microspecialist agencies feels inefficient. He’s much keener on a more consultative approach with a small number of multi-service agencies able to be closely involved in his brand. One of the key attributes he is looking for is the willingness of his agency to admit that they don’t always know the answer, and then the willingness to ‘work their ass off with us to figure it out’.

Dean agrees that a close relationship is very important. He feels that agency and client should be like a family, and of course it takes some time for the balance to be found in families. He’s keen on working with agencies with powerful creative skills as he feels having strong creative has served his brand very well. Because anyone can produce content now, each agency needs to have a very strong purpose. If Dean was going to start an agency himself, he would be looking to make it a team of misfits – a group of specialists, with the right personalities to produce great work together.

Ignatius asked the panellists what pain points prompt them to look for new agencies and how they would go about it.

Bacharach’s main pain point is when he feels that one side is not as willing to work at the relationship. Other reasons might be that what you both want out of the relationship doesn’t matter anymore, or that additional capabilities are required.

For Axe, Dean says that it would principally be if the work was no longer good enough or the relationship is breaking down. He describes how, when this is happening, there is a sense that the agency is coming in scared. As part of the Unilever group, Dean’s first stop when looking for a new agency would be to turn to the rostered agencies that are doing good work on other brands, but for a new launch he is likely to run a formal pitch.

Faris says that it can come to pass that agencies are just producing work that is one big legal disclaimer, when what he really wants is for them to come in fearless. The most pressing reason for a change of agency would be when he feels that every opportunity for great creative ideas has been exhausted. However he does also acknowledge that it is the duty of the CMO to make sure that the right people in the marketing team are managing the agency, as there is dual responsibility for creating great work. His approach to finding a new agency would be to get an unbiased supporter in to manage the process.

And finally, the CMOs were asked how they are assessed on their own performance. Without exception it was principally about hitting their metrics – a fact that agencies should be tuned into in terms of how they can support them in measuring and achieving specific objectives.

Dean's also included elements to do with special projects and an assessment of how he manages the teams. Bacharach felt more comfortable with the quantitative part of his performance review, as regular monitoring means it hold no surprises, but found the qualitative aspects were more likely to induce some anxiety as they are more subjective. Faris describes how, since the acquisition of Virgin Mobile USA by Sprint, he is bound by a quarterly routine. Every three months he has to state what he’s achieved versus objectives in the last quarter in order to release budget for the next quarter.

See, it’s not just agencies that have it tough.

Diane Young is a director at Recommended Agency Register

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