Don’t choose an ad agency by choosing a campaign

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In what other industry can a potential client call up and invite successful and respected firms to compete for their business and have them all jump at the opportunity to spend days, nights, weekends, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and money to win an account that doesn’t offer more than a 90-day service contract? Perhaps the greater insanity, and much more costly one in the long run, is to expect agencies that are going all out to win an account and pretty much working in a vacuum, to have the knowledge and objectivity — or confidence — to develop an enduring campaign while they are competing in a beauty pageant.

Clients that go into an agency review looking to buy a campaign may get what they want, but more often than not they are putting their brands at risk.

I am sure that most clients and agencies would be nodding their heads in agreement, so why does it keep happening time and time again? Well, for one thing, clients are usually not secure enough to hire an agency without knowing what they are going to get in terms of a campaign. Reputation, experience, track record, chemistry, even awards, are all critical factors for consideration, but they still want to see the goods. And they agencies in a pitch don’t often have the time and information to get it right.

Boards can be impatient and a new CMO or CEO is often charged with change. And let’s face it, it takes a long time and a lot of capital to change a product or retool factories. It doesn’t take much time or investment to hold an agency review. In fact, it can buy time and get a lot of free thinking. So while the risk of committing to the wrong strategy and launching a new campaign can be a disaster to the business, there is intense pressure to show action.

And agencies are all too willing to play. They have bosses, too, and new business is how they are judged. So when the call comes in they are focused on one thing: not building the brand, but winning the account. It is the rare agency that will suggest a strategy or idea that flies in the face of where they think a client wants to end up. And suggesting evolution instead of a complete break with the past can be a death sentence when change is the mandate. So what happens when competing agencies are asked to execute against a brief they may not agree with or a strategy informed by research they had nothing to do with? Well, most often they will do their best to execute against that strategy, even if they have reservations. After all, it’s about winning the account.

One case study that stands out for me is Office Depot. A while back, a new CEO arrived believing that he needed to disrupt the business and preempt the category by refocusing on selling higher margin technology products like computers and printers, not commodity products like paper or envelopes. It was a sound idea that I am sure made great sense to his Board, except they didn’t work in the stores. The folks who did, the ones dealing with customers, didn’t have the knowledge or experience to sell technology products. But why sweat the small stuff? All ahead full! So, instead of making sure they could deliver on what they were promising, they called an agency review and the winning agency did a highly creative job in executing his strategy. The result? After about twenty-four straight losing quarters and with the stock price in free fall, he was fired and so was the agency. The Office Depot business has never recovered.

If he had instead hired an agency based on its category experience, insights on his business, related case studies or quality of its team, chances are that once the agency really got into the business, it might have counseled him not to rush to market before his store people were properly trained and his strategy could be executed successfully.

Look, I recognize that what I am suggesting is a generalization, and that there have been instances where the campaign from the pitch went on to be very successful. However, I am willing to bet that this is rarely the case. And while the relationship between clients and their agencies has changed drastically over the years, one thing hasn’t changed: the marketplace is the ultimate judge.

One thing is for sure, when a client chooses a new agency by buying a new campaign, more often than not the real victims are the brand and the business.

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