Sorry, But Brands Don’t Really Want To Fix Agencies

If you read Digiday every day, you’d be convinced that all advertising agencies are terribly dysfunctional and they’re pretty much screwed like dinosaurs. Which, as we all know, has a slight kernel of truth sometimes. But article after article aims to hoist agencies on their own petards.

This article from Giselle Abramovich, entitled, “What Brands Want Agencies To Fix,” caught my eye. Because it’s emblematic of the silliness that sometimes pervades this agency-bashing attitude. Four anonymous “Brand Execs” offer their opinions on what they want to see agencies improve upon. All four reveal their general cluelessness about how agencies work and their own lack of self-awareness.

Here’s a sample of the quotes:

“Knowing our brand is table stakes; after all, we already know our brand. Whether it’s an agency or a startup partner, they’re of no use if they’re not as obsessed with our competitors as we are.”

Most agencies lack the internal account planning or management structure to ably research and understand their client’s business, let alone the competition. Clients only share the information they’re willing to share with their agencies, which tends to take a rose-colored view of the brand’s market position. Plus, agencies are obsessed with their own competition most of all.

“More clarity around staffing and the actual hours spent on the client business.”

Every client has the right to go in and ask how their agency’s employees spend their time. Or better yet, walk into the agency’s office and see for themselves. But most clients don’t give a shit about that. Because they don’t know who really does the work on their business – the creative people, the project managers, the folks who make the product. Agencies are all too happy to parade the CEO, the new business director, the head of Account Management, and the ECDs in front of the client – who are generally the people most detached from the day-to-day business of running the account. In 15 years of working on hundreds of brands, I can count on one hand the number of large clients who actually asked to meet the people on the lowest rungs of their agency’s totem pole, or care about how the work actually gets done.

“In my view, agencies overall have to get better about listening and learning about their clients’ business. Over the years, I’ve experienced agencies going back to repeatable programs and strategies versus listening for new opportunities.”

There’s some truth here, but it’s not the agency’s fault. Clients need to open up their businesses to their agencies and invite them in – all levels of the agency personnel. I’ve made a career-long habit of asking for the access required to understand more about my clients’ businesses. But because I was not in a management position, I was rarely granted that wish. Plus, agencies are in business to make money – which doesn’t automatically correspond to doing what the client really needs. If an agency can’t profit from a client request or a certain type of creative work, the agency is simply not going to pursue that initiative.

“Another thing is a lot of our agencies treat us too preciously. We need a bit more aggressive ideas because mediocre ideas, even if they are on brand, won’t do well.”

This is another piece of client idiocy. Once an agency lands a piece of business, their motivation is not getting fired from the account. No client truly wants to be uncomfortable, no matter how much they say they want it. Because uncomfortable is…uncomfortable. This business about “making the client nervous” with ideas is crapola. No one likes to be nervous, and agencies can’t handle client reactions when they do get nervous. So the mediocrity goes on.

If brands truly want agencies to fix themselves, they have the power to make it happen. Go in and demand to meet and engage all the people who work on the account. Skip the fluffy PowerPoint decks and ass-kissing strategy sessions that have little bearing on what the agency ultimately produces. And encourage everyone in the agency to understand their business inside and out, to produce ideas that aren’t just cool, but build business as well. And then pay for those ideas.

Until “Brand Execs” do these things, they won’t fix anything.



About Dan Goldgeier

Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. Dan is also a columnist for and the author of View From The Cheap Seats and Killer Executions and Scrubbed Decks.