This week's upcoming BeanCast guest, Ana Andjelic, is stirring the pot a bit in anAdAge.com post on Why Digital Agencies Aren't Ready To Lead. Her premise, in a nutshell, is that while digital shops have the creative chops, they don't have the discipline and experience to manage the complex brand relationship.
I've been having quite a spirited debate on this subject with Bill Green (Make The Logo Bigger) via email. Neither of us thinks it's that cut and dry. Because while I essentially agree with Ana's charges, at the same time I believe she is not so much pointing out the weakness of digital shops but rather the weakness of the lead-agency model as a whole.
The Agency's First Concern
I have personally managed the complex relationships between various agencies (PR, brand, web, direct) working on a single client's business. And let me tell you with complete candor, not a single one of us really had the client's best interest as our first concern. It was a warm and kind surface relationship where everyone always had an eye out for the others weaknesses, in search of a bigger share of the marketing spend and more control on the account. Of course we all wanted to do a good job and enhance the brand for the client. But if it came down to a choice between letting another agency take more share because they had a better plan and pushing for our own plan to make more money, all of us would have gladly chosen the latter.
Let's face facts here: Expecting your agency partners to always work together and push for your best interest is akin to putting a steak in a room with hungry dogs and expecting them to share equally or make sure that the smartest of of them gets an extra portion. It's never going to happen. What is going to happen is the biggest, strongest dog in the room is going to throw his weight around, take the biggest share and leave the scraps for the rest.
The Client Needs An Advocate
This is why for some time I've been an advocate for stronger, smarter client-side CMOs and brand managers. I might even go for a Chief Brand Officer who's sole job it is to make sure the communication stream stays on message while still delivering results. Better yet, an outside person who's only job is to manage the agencies for the client and direct their efforts not based on share of the business, but on what is best of the client's needs.
The point is that the right idea or approach can come from anywhere. But the only way clients will consistently ensure that they will be leading with the best approach is to take this decision out of the "lead" agency's hands. I'm not saying don't listen. Certainly the agency partners have a lot to offer. But ultimately the only way to get synergy across all your marketing efforts is to have smart, top-down leadership that doesn't have a vested interest in getting more budget.
The Right Person For The Job
Of course, I realize what I am asking here. Expecting that the CMO will not be influenced by the excitement of a TV production is Utopian at best. And finding someone to lead the charge who is well versed in all the disciplines of marketing is also wishful thinking. But it can be done. That's one of the reasons I left the agency realm, was to be more of this kind of advocate for the client's best interest. And I've met plenty of smart marketers and business leaders who understand this balance. And guess what — their brands are stronger because of it.
Agency of Record (or AOR) has come to mean, "We are in control." And at one time this would have made sense, seeing as media was concentrated in a few places and clients needed guidance. But with so many ways available now for reaching any given audience, I believe it's time for clients to rethink this model and start seeing their AOR partners as advisors, not defacto rulers. Until they do, I can guarantee that the work they get will always be driven by the needs of the agency first.