Brands are happy to be 100% present and 70% perfect. So why don’t agencies get that?

By David Mayo, (Former) Ogilvy Malaysia chief executive

April 24, 2019 | 10 min read

What’s up with ad agencies? Their clients ask for more creativity and agencies cut all the people who can make that possible.


Brands are happy to be 100% present and 70% perfect. So why don’t agencies get that?

It’s as though they are suffering one of those terrible canabalistic diseases that is entirely of their own making.

For whilst the world is plunging headlong in to the abyss of anonymous, programmatic media and “personalization at scale” (an oxymoron if ever there was one!) the agencies are stuck on a high branch somewhere between needing to feed their cost structures and taking almost any work in order to keep feeding their baby elephant, and having to maintain their high ground competitive creative edge.

And whilst they are mutually exclusive, one of these is winning.

On the one hand, ad agencies have moved into the middle ground offering every possible integrated service, hoovering up as much of the communication plankton as possible. And yet, the single thing that makes good ad agencies different from their own competitors – their unique ability to use creativity to crack hard business issues and challenges – seems to be the one thing that is paying for this march down onto the plains of sameness.

I read a piece recently from Keith Weed who has issued a rallying cry to agencies to improve their creative offering. “As an industry we’ve taken our eye off the ball of creating great, engaging advertising.” He says “If we lose the desire to create fabulous, engaging content, I think we’ve lost the sparkle.”

“We need to wake up and say let’s get back to the bit that really makes this business buzz.”

Yes. Lets.

But, Keith, who is ‘we’?

Your brand teams are so far down in the trench that they have to take all and any means possible to just keep delivering more sales with ever-so-slightly-less budgets. Because of this the brand has now been usurped by ubiquity. They are cutting corners like a blind seamstress. And the agencies aren’t being paid enough by your teams to put the right caliber of creators on your business that you expect of them. You yourself have praised the media teams at WPP but you remain underwhelmed by the creative output.

In a nutshell, You have invested in media – where you can count. You have not invested in creativity.

As David Ogilvy famously said – clients get the agencies they deserve. Even the big ones.

Creativity as a concept is correct. It unlocks, unblocks and it blazes trails. Take any successful company in history and they have a creative tale to tell. Then there are the bland middle-grounder’s, the also-ran’s, the me-too’s and the passengers who ape the behaviours of the category leaders, hoping to become that good. But creativity involves three things that don’t live in today’s boardroom – mavericks, time and money.

And yet, creativity in the boardroom is a dying art. Every week it seems, I speak to a senior creative person who is moving on. The person who would be the agency’s best chance of explaining how a creative idea can build/save a brand or a company to a recalcitrant chief executive. The best chance of rallying a team around a brief or a challenge and coming up with a silver bullet.

Part of this is because many of the people who are suddenly running ad agencies now are not brand and communication people. They are not paid to manage creativity or people or emotions. Or anything to do with the right side of the brain. They are paid to manage numbers. But most importantly they are being paid to manage. Not to lead.

And yet their clients are asking for whole brain thinking and right brain delivery.

So if you go to a shop and they don’t sell what you are looking for, what do you do? You go and find another shop who does sell what you want to buy. And this is what’s happening to indignant agencies who will always blame the clients instead of looking at why they went elsewhere.

But as with many industries, the money comes from a single source. In Advertising and communications the source of all the money in the industry is the brands and the marketing clients responsible for them. And if they are serious about getting back to creativity then there needs to be a clear mandate for quality and creative excellence from Keith’s level. Hand-wringing won’t hire top talent. But a proper budget and a strong will will do that and the results will come. However creativity comes at a cost.

Moving around the issue of creativity and how to produce it is something that marketing clients are now doing for themselves. Necessarily so. Its not that the advertising agencies aren’t or can’t do it for themselves its that nobody is leading the industry with some hard-core thought leadership and starting a debate around the opportunities for agencies.

As an example of this, I went to a conference several weeks ago where Media Monks was presenting. It wasted the stage slot telling us all about the deal it did with Martin and S4, keen to emphasize that it’s a merger and not a take over. All the nausea of the headlines from last June, re-targetted, re-served and re-personalized for a captive audience.

It pressed the undeniable importance of programmatic media and the role of media in a creative world and then Sir Martin himself was beamed in live for a few questions about what keeps him up at night.

Its always nice to see and hear from Martin, however if they had stood up and showed the great/latest cases of how a heady mix of media and creativity had won the day for their clients and then put up a slide to a) show the key differences between Media Monks and everyone else and b) three things they could do on Monday to make a difference, the whole audience might have gone off and done something different for a change.

There are a few things that agencies are missing about the way their clients are now thinking. Budgets are no longer shrinking according to Kantar research, however there are several things that agencies would do well to heed, or continue their slide.

  1. Brands are happy to be 100% present and 70% perfect. Not everything has to be hand-crafted and ‘just so’. The race to presence will almost always out-gun the need for perfection. That can be adjusted along the way.
  2. Stick to what you are good at – creativity and branding. Don’t keep trying to out manoevre the outsource alternatives. When you leave your fort on the hill and make your way down to the plains below to do battle, you become vulnerable by joining the pack.
  3. Clients are dealing with their own data. Any agency involvement in data is aimed at tuning the data to the creative outcomes. Its not part of the agency high ground offer for clients.
  4. According to Kantar, 85% of clients are craving creative thinking. There is an absolute golden opportunity here for agencies to get back to what they were always best at. (the question will be the divergent definitions of ‘creative thinking’ between clients and agencies but I am sure a good planner can work that out for us!)
  5. ROI is critical. If you can prove that your creative work works, you will win.

And away from ad agencies, if they are no longer the mecca for creative talent, where will all the creatives go to practice their craft when the agencies finally become studio shops? And where will the marketers buy from? Boutiques, collectives, creative platforms?

There are plenty of alternatives open to clients who want more from their agencies and yet who expect more from their budgets. One is in-sourcing but that model is being tested to the limit currently. It’s not a place for the objectivity that a good creative agency can bring.

We are in the midst of an explosion of CVMP’s (Creative Vendor Management Platforms). Places where you can buy influencers, freelancers, film makers, writers and in some rare cases, like GetCraft everything in one place. But the way clients are using them is tactical. They use them in exasperation, as a last resort.

Why is this? If the market for top creative talent in all its guises is freely available in one place, why wouldn’t a marketing client simply assemble the best of the creators and the best of the thinkers and the project managers and put virtual agencies together?

In Hollywood, the only person on the studio payroll in any production is the Producer. Everyone else is a gun for hire. And they need to be good to get the best work. It’s a Darwinian world in Hollywood but the model is sound. And profitable.

In fact the output is so good that people actually pay to go and see it (unlike advertisers who pay people to watch their content…!).

If there were a new place for creative people to practice their craft, where they got paid on time and appreciated and supported by grown up clients who have a clear vision of their future and who will happily indulge their brands in a bit of Commonsense and Bravery, where they are trained and nurtured, then the world of creativity would be deeper, richer and more accessible.

The only people who can prevent that Hollywood future from becoming a reality are the ad agencies sitting on their wilted laurels, who currently under-serve and over-charge their clients.

But that’s up to them.

David Mayo is the former chief executive for Ogilvy Malaysia and current chief growth officer at GetCraft. He tweets on @dpcmayo


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