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Guest Article: Suprio Guha Thakurta: The problem with advertising agencies. In brief

In the current environment of network agencies ruled by quarterly results and global boards, suggesting any idea of investment in people and research is a sure fire way of committing career hara-kiri.

I was lucky to have joined advertising in the days when people in agencies actually discussed briefs (no, think again). I have spent hours discussing the nuances of the lines that will describe the problem the brand was facing. The exact line that will form "what's the one thing we want to communicate". That was the most important part of my job. Everyone in the agency believed this and all of servicing was judged on one's ability to distill the client's problems to the magical document called the brief.

Suprio Guha Thakurta

Then, once we had rigorously finished each of the questions in the briefing document (after having survived the boss' sarcasm and multiple corrections), we had to get it approved by the client. We then briefed creative and more often than not good, sometimes brilliant, but never mediocre work happened.

I have been a client for close to five years. The agency has created great work for us. That has moved markets and won awards (amazing but true). Have I seen a single briefing document? Nope. All the campaign briefings have been done practically directly to the creative team and then work directly presented by the creative team.

So, what's the problem?

The problem is that most client CEOs haven't been agency servicing people. They come from various backgrounds: sales, finance, HR, marketing and today, a large portion of them are entrepreneurs. Making sense of what their business is, what are the key stumbling blocks, what is the role of communications in the business, and figuring out the communication mix before starting on creating an ad is critical. My guess is this is not happening very well.

I sense that more and more CEOs will be directly talking to creative. More and more creative people will feel (rightly) that they can do this on their own. More and more boutique agencies run by creative duos will spring up and walk away with big business. And, in most cases, bar a few exceptional creative people (who are great instinctive planners), start producing great looking totally off strategy work which will not move products. After the honeymoon period, the business of pitches will start and the downward spiral will continue.

All for the agency stalwarts' lack of focus on what is truly the heart of the business: creating the perfect brief. And, their failing to back that person whose job it was to.

I would love to have a meeting where I sit back and listen to the agency dissecting my industry, showing me how consumers are buying, telling me how competition is playing the game and suggesting alternative strategies for my brand. However, in the current environment of network agencies ruled by quarterly results and global boards, suggesting any idea of investment in people and research is a sure fire way of committing career hara-kiri.

I wonder if someone out there is putting together an agency which goes back to the old days and has account servicing, creative (offline and online) and media in one team. Where servicing and media sit together, understand the industry, the consumer, the client's business objectives and his marketing strategy. This then becomes the background document for the agency to base its thinking on. From that fount of knowledge, the servicing person will create briefs that creative will take a leap from.

I certainly hope that there is that someone. Otherwise, the agency business as it exists right now has a very short life span. Or should I say: brief.

The author is managing director, India, The Economist.

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