The Problem With 'Agency Experience'

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The truth is we over-value agency experience because of how agencies work, not the work agencies do.

“We’re looking for an outside-the-box thinker. Someone who looks at things differently. An innovator who doesn’t accept there is one way to do anything. You are a disrupter, a rule-breaker. … Candidates must have agency experience.”

This is an excerpt from a recent posting for a position with a top-tier creative agency. 

You almost miss the irony of it. But this time it caught my attention. They’re making a mistake most of us make when we become trapped in the Agency Experience Bubble. 

Many agencies do this. I certainly did when I was running an agency. It’s a mistake I wish I had recognized at the time.

This agency’s job description made me wonder why many agencies elevate the importance of working at other agencies in their hiring. Creativity doesn’t require a specific degree. Working in advertising or public relations isn’t like being a doctor, or a lawyer, or even a CPA, which all require professional training, education, and industry certifications. Yet the agency culture has become designed to insulate itself as though we know things others couldn’t possibly understand.

The truth is we over-value agency experience because of how agencies work, not the work agencies do. An art director who has never worked at an agency is inhibited only by lacking an understanding of the hyperactive mindset of insane deadlines, inter-departmental drama, and the awfulness that is time entry.

But what if how we value agency experience is not just unimportant, but is outright problematic? In a time when agencies themselves are being aggressively disrupted, why are we hanging on to an ideal of who fits into an outdated paradigm?

We've started looking at this question from a few different angles:

Problem #1: It’s ‘Mad Men’ thinking in a ‘Silicon Valley’ era. The safety of knowing where you fit across a neatly packaged organization of departments is over. We still treat these as sacred verticals of knowledge that outsiders would never work in effectively. Starts-ups, on the other hand, work across multiple skillsets simultaneously. They cross-train teams because they have to. As many agencies grow, so does their reliance on finding talent who fit easily into what they have built. When we only hire people who fit into that architecture, we overvalue the architecture itself. 

Problem #2: It’s a roadblock to diversity. This is an important issue that is under-explored. Agencies have a diversity problem. They are largely white, male-owned, hyper-educated safe zones of people who look, think, talk, and network in familiar socioeconomic groups. When we hire based on agency experience, we’re promoting the value of a certain type of person who matches an increasingly homogenous profile of a Creative Class. It values educational status over raw skill. It dilutes the value of integrating different life experiences, identities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It also encourages agencies to view all consumers and target audiences with the same homogenous brush. 

Problem #3: It’s services over problem-solving. Many agencies are stuck in a services mindset. It a false belief that good agencies make great creative or provide the best client service. So we hire people who specialize in providing those services – namely, people from other agencies. Services are important to agencies because services generate revenue. But the value agencies should be creating isn’t in work product, but in solving a complex business problem. This is becoming increasingly important to clients, and it’s why we’re seeing business consultants and strategic advisors grabbing our ad dollars and client budgets. 

Our industry is going through seismic shifts in how media intersect with a hybrid of social, political, and economic challenges that cut across all categories of consumers. While we’re busy promoting people who fit the agency model, others are reinventing what an agency actually is and making gains in a highly disruptive communications business.

We’d be wise to start recruiting and hiring based not on what we have built, but where our business is headed. 

Dear Agency: It's Not About You

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The business model of every advertising, marketing, and public relations agency is facing a number of daunting threats. That’s just a fact.

Still, many really good agencies keep analyzing their future success based on their own reputation of success, not the demand-driven marketplace for what they do.

If you’ve read any book about running a successful company, there is ample evidence a certain level of inward obsession is healthy. But success leads many communications agencies to grow far too obsessed with their own reputations, culture, people, and work. Many come to think of themselves first as “We’re the agency that [insert your agency's greatest hits].” They trade on that credibility to create demand and bring in clients.

The problem is not that this doesn’t work. It’s that it works really well for a short period of time.

It also most benefits the sunsetting careers of the agency’s founder or executive leadership team – the individuals who will cash out right around the time the agency realizes its model isn’t sustainable without that reputational currency. Almost all agencies stumble at that point. Not because leadership was so crucial to its survival. Rather, the outsized value given to those roles masked a reality the agency itself wasn’t as valuable as it thought it was.

If you’re an agency founder or leader reading this, that’s a harsh assessment to internalize. But internalize it you must. Because it’s really not about you and your agency. It’s just not.

Building and sustaining an agency this way papers over the need to be constantly keeping pace with what clients actually needed. Acknowledging that exposes a complicated tension between actually measuring an agency's raw performance and fuzzy growth based on the perception of success.

I’m not saying reputation and relationships aren’t crucial factors in every agency’s success. I’m saying it is given too much weight in support of an agency’s short-term success – at the expense of rigorously adapting for long-term relevance.

The Reality of ‘Eventual Irrelevance’

Agencies spend a lot of resources evaluating their success, growth and longevity. They will reinvent process, shuffle people, merge departments, and try to scale success through replication.

Fewer look externally at what’s driving the marketplace and are willing to accept the hard truth: everyone in this industry faces the same threat of irrelevance.

Relying too heavily on internal reflection often allows agency leadership to conclude things are in pretty good shape. They end up believing future success will keep up so long as they stay focused on replicating prior success.

Along the way, they are ignoring shifting dynamics in the industry and emerging client markets. Moreover, they discount the reality that today’s revenue streams are always in a state of change. They ultimately miss new revenue opportunities and dismiss radical changes in how human communication is becoming more effective.

In the interim, new agencies fill the void. These firms start stealing market share and attracting clients. By the time the old guard notices, it’s too late to change and catch up. Or worse, they catch up to the new way of doing things just as the market starts shifting again. It can become a constant state of providing something clients eventually realize they don’t really need.

Believing in an “agency-first growth strategy” is fairly common. It also leads to all kinds of systemic problems that eventually bring down great agencies. Pick up your local business journals Top 25 Agencies list from ten years ago. You’ll likely see many are gone, merged, or relegated to whispers about becoming “not what they once were.”

Like Everything, You Can Blame Amazon

Every agency today, whether they know it or not, is standing at the same precipice. The black void below is scary. It’s full of unknowns and it’s not clear what lies therein.

One thing is known: It’s not going to look like what we’ve modeled our business around for the last decade’s media consumers.

We are facing a kind of “Amazonification” of our industry. Clients often don’t need Agency of Record relationships. Things are becoming project-based and on-demand. Clients will work with a dozen specialized agencies all servicing overlapping needs. They'll call when they need you – and wanting a need met without a fuss. They will have their own in-house creative and implementation teams. They want options over ideas. Speed over strategy. It all has to be backed up with rigorous data and constantly trackable.

What impact does all this have on advertising and communications agencies?

Pricing. Clients have more agency options than ever. Like it or not, there are a thousand agencies that can do what you do. (Read that again: You are replaceable based purely on what you can do.) This is putting downward pressure on client expectations of what things should cost. They may want more for less. Many want less for less. This is because what they need is so specific and targeted, and they understand the bloat that often accompanies media plans or ad buys. Clients are asking for more transparency on why things cost what they cost and a demonstration it made any difference in moving the needle. The qualitative “Feeling Successful” is being replaced with a “Why-Did-We-Spend-Any-Money-There” request for data-driven outcomes and any agency re-investments. 

Purpose. What exactly is the role of the agency going to be? It’s time to rethink the notion of “an account” and the belief agencies should always be seen as their clients’ partners. Sure, this sounds nice. Honestly, what agency wants to be an order taker? The truth is, while there will be some agencies tasked with embedded partnership roles, the purpose of the agency is increasingly going to be fixed in solving a specific problem that may be entirely devoid of a strategic need. Strategy may be baked before your team is engaged. Your job will be to solve a specific problem and show how it was solved.

Services. Every agency pretty much offers the same general services. Yet many still focus their business development around pitching service offerings and capabilities. Tools, information, and analytics are becoming more valuable than that full-service mantra. What tools do you own such that I have to work with you? What consumer insight or analytics do you have that no other agency has? How are you alone able to reach my customers in a way I’m not even aware of? This means agencies might reconsider pouring business development funds into happy hours and networking forums. Start putting your energy into the creation of hard proprietary tools and assets that will knock out your competition or create an entirely client new market.

The hard truth in all this is that every agency has traditionally had access to the same level playing field. Anyone can get a billboard or air time or news coverage. But that’s changing. And it’s changing in part because fewer clients care about getting access to what agencies have always been able to gain access to. 

A big question in all of this is: Where exactly does the agency fit in anymore? That’s a question more and more of us are asking.

Those wanting to examine potential answers will be around to grab new revenue opportunities that will exist in a reborn New Agency Economy. Those who snort it off as not their problem because, well, right now everything is awesome?

Let’s check those business journal rankings in a few years.

Winning Pitches That Lose

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Pitching new business in advertising and public relations is insanely fun. Anyone who’s been on a new business team knows getting in the room for “the big pitch” is one of the most energizing parts of agency life. 

A winning pitch is a funky cocktail. It’s one part performance, one part chemistry assessment, and one part knowledge test. And one of the consistent problems I see with many agencies I work with is they over-focus on demonstrating their team’s knowledge and experience.

I’m often asked, “How did we lose that pitch?” I hear this from agency’s that could (and should) have closed the deal. Right team. Right qualifications. Smart presentation. 

They had a winning pitch that lost.

I recently advised an advertising agency on a pitch for a significant piece of business (read: multi-million dollar, multi-year contract). They were well-positioned as one of three finalists. They knew their stuff and do very reputable work.

We started with a table read of their initial outline. I listened. I watched. It was really sharp for a first take. It checked all the boxes the client was looking for. Yet as I listened to them, I couldn’t help feeling this was a winning pitch that stands a good chance of losing.

Here’s why: I didn’t feel anything for what I was listening to. It all sounded right. But that seemed to be part of the problem. It was so technically spot on it lacked any moments where a person listening could feel this was the team, that they had it.

Sounding right versus feeling right is often the difference between signing a contract and your team sitting at the nearest bar licking post-loss wounds. 

Watching this agency’s initial approach, I made note of common pitch trends I’ve witnessed over years of designing new business presentations. They’re fairly easy mistakes to avoid if you’re willing to rethink – and ultimately redesign – your approach to pitching.

Mistake #5: Focusing on doing the work. Yes, the work is important. And every agency will hit these talking points. (Cue the speeches about your agency’s “quality service,” “unique process,” and “client collaboration.”) Client’s inevitably ask your pitch team to address work components. But that’s not necessarily what they are listening for. In fact, if you’re asked to present a Proposed Work Plan, most likely you’re being asked to demonstrate how you’d work with them to create one. The campaign you’re pitching will have a target audience. But your target audience in a pitch are those judges sitting across from you. If you don’t speak to them about them, you’ll risk losing no matter how sharp that Proposed Work Plan sounds. 

Mistake #4: Not knowing who’s across the table. This is more than knowing titles and your two “shared connections” on LinkedIn. You must truly understand each person scoring your team and design a presentation that fits the psychology of those decision-makers. I see pitch teams reading corporate bios or analyzing judges’ resumes. Not enough. That’s “Price of Entry Knowledge,” the stuff every other agency will know going in. Your job is to understand what makes these people tick. Where did they grow up? What are they involved in outside the office? Do they read The Wall Street Journal or watch MSNBC? Leveraging these complex personal attributes can influence the outcome of a pitch. They are looking for clues about how well you’re going to fit into their view of the world.

Mistake #3: Being the smartest people in the room. Agencies tend to shift into a hyper-competitive mode going into a pitch. They want to win, so they pitch based on two interconnected fears: 1) We have to look smarter than the competition; and 2) The client needs to see how great we are at what we do. I’ve seen great agencies lose an easy win by coming across as too smart. The people who invited you in aren’t devoid of ideas and opinions. No matter what the RFP says, they’re not necessarily looking for you to showcase expertise or tell them what they should do. They are trying to take stock on whether they want to work with you and your team. 

Mistake #2: Sending in the wrong people. Too often, senior leadership is sent in to pitch. This often includes an agency founder or CEO – who either dominates the presentation or is left playing Cheerleader-in-Chief for the agency’s track record of greatness. I recently asked a team why their founder was going to be in the room. Their response: “They’re the founder.” In other words: We don’t know but no one wants to tell them they shouldn’t be there. This creates a football team with people in ill-defined roles talking for no reason. It becomes confusing. Every single person in that room must have a clearly defined role and reason for being there. Treat a pitch like your kick-off meeting with that client – and don’t be afraid to communicate that’s your intention.

Mistake #1: Failing to connect. Every agency needs to ponder this: At what point standing in front of that panel do you establish a true connection with the people in front of you? I just worked on a pitch where everyone (a team of four) did a rapid-fire introductory slideshow of pictures from defining moments in their life. The client later confessed it was that simple, singular moment that tipped it in our favor. They felt they knew what made us us. Connect. Break the wall between you and the judges. This can be demonstrating you understand a unique challenge of the client's department. Maybe it’s not answering every question with a ready answer, but instead asking them why the underlying issue has been problematic in the past. 

Most wins happen in a grey space often difficult to see or articulate. Clients struggle to explain it, but decisions are made by weighing factors outside the details of a media strategy or that slide you slipped in at the last minute.

An ace sharp shooter will tell you the best way to hit your target is to aim at the area just outside it. I call this the “Grey Space of Success” – a zone of business development filled with intangibles agencies often ignore. It’s a melding of personality, tone, self-awareness, style, and psychoanalysis. Your qualifications will get you in the room. But closing the deal is rooted in considering whether standing or sitting sets the best tone (and yes, I’ve been on teams that won because of that very decision).

There is one additional mistake worth mentioning. It’s not embracing every loss as an opportunity. 

The adage about gaining more from your failures than successes is enormously important. I see agencies lose and pour their energy into obsessing over the flaws of the winning team. I once worked at an agency that handled a loss by never discussing or acknowledging it happened. (Tip: Don’t do this.) I’ve also heard from the client side some agencies will dispute a loss or demand explanations. (Tip: Don’t do this either.)

Win or lose, talk to the prospective client after decisions are made. What did you like about our presentation? What could we have done differently? What was the biggest factor in your decision in the end? How do you see us working together going forward? 

People hire people. They rarely hire that "big idea" or your suite of services. No matter what they say, most clients never hire on qualifications, expertise, and experience alone.

Remember that agency I mentioned earlier with the big multi-million dollar pitch? It took a week of long days and nights to research, rebuild, and redesign that presentation. It took five hour-long dry runs before the old way of doing things finally purged itself from their traditional talking points. 

The night before the big day, every member of that team said it was a hard shift in their traditional way of pitching.

They won.

It's Time To Kill The RFP - Here's Why

The dreaded RFP.

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If you’re in the advertising and public relations world, RFPs are like money in politics. Firms and clients both dislike them. Yet neither side seems willing or able to stop them from happening.

I frequently hear mutual frustrations with this antiquated search model. Clients feel ill-equipped to develop and manage an RFP process – and are often unhappy with the results. Agencies feel RFPs don’t provide the right information and require too much guess work “on spec.”

So, to both sides, here’s my message: It’s time to kill the RFP.

If you work at any size communications agency, you’ve responded to an RFP, or “request for proposals.” They are knee-jerk, copy-paste behavior at its worst. Companies and organizations use them because they aren’t sure how else to find the right partner. Services firms grit their teeth and respond because they hope it might lead to a big new client.

It’s a vortex of well-intentioned but highly misguided habits. Agencies, you keep responding to them. Clients, you keep putting them out. Both sides know the RFP approach is flawed. Yet neither does much to fix this outdated method of procurement.

So why - despite our better judgment - does the RFP persist?

Having spent years managing agency RFP responses for Fortune 500s, non-profits, government agencies, and everything in between, I’ve noticed a pattern of shared behaviors preventing us from designing better default methods:

Reason #1: Clients don’t know what else to do – or what they actually need. An RFP is a crutch. Many organizations simply don’t know how else to find what they are looking for. An RFP is used to compile a broad scope of work (usually developed by committee) that rarely defines a clear strategic purpose behind it. This inevitably dilutes the rationale for hiring an agency. The RFP becomes a list of conflicting tasks, services, and tactical deliverables.

Reason #2: Agencies are addicted to them. Communications agency culture tends to foment a lot of risk-taking and innovative, bet-the-farm envelope pushing. This can transfer itself into the agency’s business development philosophy. Business development teams love “the thrill of the hunt.” Most great Creatives are, by nature, drawn to challenges with chaos and disruption built into them. (That’s what makes them great Creatives.) All of this perfectly defines the feeling of getting and responding to an RFP – and, if you’re lucky, landing a big contract.

Reason #3: That agency-client “partnership” often isn’t one. Very few agency-client partnerships are actual partnerships. Agencies tend function within a Culture of Yes even when they know the work could be better – and more effective. Many clients rarely hear "no" and this dynamic begins with the RFP process. Too many agencies don’t question the client or push back on things that don’t make sense for fear of not winning the business. Nobody wants to rock the boat if it means losing potential revenue.

I could go on. Simply put, both sides are complicit in this cycle.

There are many other reasons why this formula has grown tired and ineffective. But it’s more important to focus on why RFPs are actually not a very good way to build your business (if you’re an agency) or to find a creative partner (if you’re the client).

Here are three major reasons why it’s time to kill the RFP:

It says nothing about what’s really going on. RFPs rarely disclose the true nature of an organization’s communications needs. They often focus on services, tasks, or the basic assignments required of an agency. They may ask for “new and innovative” ideas but leave out critical analysis of why it’s needed or the realistic challenges if implementing them – be that the personalities involved, budget limitations or internal bureaucracies. Agencies often don’t get more than a brief window to ask questions via e-mail (some don’t bother asking). Clients think cutting off access to critical information during an RFP process creates fairness. The two sides end up guessing. Assumptions are made. It’s the procurement equivalent of shooting at a target blindfolded and hoping you hit something.

It’s asking for free work you’ll never use. Developing a proposal is itself time consuming. Agencies spend non-billable time (meaning late nights and weekends) putting together responses – and usually on insanely tight timelines. Many RFPs ask firms to develop work product “on spec,” requiring creative teams to showcase everything from original strategy to designs. There are numerous problems with this. The agency, even if they win, ends up in the hole financially before (or if) a contract is ever signed. Clients usually toss out the spec work once the relationship is formalized. And why not? No thoughtful collaboration, research, or planning went into its development.

It’s speed dating. Imagine thinking you can get to a marriage proposal in two weeks by putting up an online profile listing the things your future mate must do for you. You’re going to go on a lot of bad dates. Your options will feel limiting. And your resulting marriage will likely be a disappointment. I’ve talked with countless clients and agency leaders over the years who recall their frustrations over how a post-RFP partnership started out promising but quickly fizzled. Culture fit was wrong. The agency or client “didn’t get it.” The client wanted more than they could afford. Nobody was on the same page. The work suffered.

The truth is proposals rarely matter. Honestly, how many times do any of us ever go back to reference the original proposal after the client-agency relationship begins? Never. Far more important is a relationship built on open, transparent dialogue and the hard-earned establishment of trust.

This is the most important message to take away from this post: A written proposal – even a winning one – is usually relegated to the trash bin after decisions get made. And this is because the most important moment in the agency hiring process is when everyone sits down and a collaborative conversation begins. Both sides can ask questions. Personalities can mesh – or not. Everyone can learn more from and about each other to identify the best way forward.

Here’s my advice to both sides:

If you’re an organization considering putting out an RFP: Instead of spending time developing an RFP, make it a priority to start building personal relationships with different firms and getting to know their strengths, skillsets, and people. Call on them when you think you have a need that matches who they are and what they do. But don’t make them jump through hoops to work with you. Start with a discussion about where you are and where you’re struggling. Doing this is more than a two-week investment. It’s constant.

If you’re an agency struggling with responding to RFPs: Decide what your RFP philosophy is – and stick by it. If you decide you don’t respond to RFPs, don’t slip into the “But-We-Should-Really-Respond-To-This-One” hedge. Instead of responding to blind requests, analyze your actual win/loss ratio. Chances are you’re doing better at (and happier with) non-RFP client acquisitions. Decide what the right format is for developing and winning business. Don’t be afraid to tell a prospective client you won’t respond to their RFP, but would gladly come in for a meeting to determine how best to serve them.