Umesh Shrikhande
Guest Article

Revisiting the death wish

Now and then the knell for ad agencies is sounded. But in a VUCA-BANI world, how can creative agencies possibly die?

Every now and then someone declares that the creative ad agencies - as we know them - are dead or dying or about to die. This incidentally has been going on for more than a decade now! And yet if they are refusing to die and in parallel if digital agencies are also finally acknowledging that they need to ‘learn’ creativity, then quite clearly the creative agencies deserve to live long. The big number of boutique agencies that have come up in the last 10 years led by talented people also tells a story. That the form might need to change but the fundamental need for ideas isn’t going away in a hurry. And that’s the big point.

Equally, it would be important to delve into the genesis of this perception that agencies are dying. Truth be told, the state of the client agency relationship does not look as rock-solid today, as it did earlier. However, there is nothing there that cannot be addressed or fixed. So long as we acknowledge that a strong relationship based on joy and respect is crucial for the health of brands in these competitive times. This is what is addressed in the latter half of this article.

Training your guns on creative agencies, has been an old sport. Earlier it was also fashionable for CMOs of giant global companies to periodically give speeches admonishing agencies for all that wasn’t happening right with their brands. The tacit assumption in all of this being that creative agencies work on their own and clients are not responsible for their outcomes. By warming up to this theme and generally absolving themselves, IMHO clients have done major disservice to the process and hence quality of ideas. The casual and biased attitude with which this subject is getting discussed is a bit worrying given that strong value-building ideas are not a peripheral ingredient in the marketing mix. It has not helped that ad industry leaders and associations haven’t taken up the cause of the creative agencies in a big way.

There is certainly no running away from the fact that agencies need to move with the times, learn new skills, revisit their structures, and generally align strongly with changing business priorities. How consumers consume communication in the new age has changed significantly and needs new approaches and experimentation with brand conversations. Data based insights need to be leveraged. Platforms need to be understood. Everyone’s learning on the job and it’s all WIP given that nobody has conclusive answers – and rightly so.

Against this backdrop, beating up agencies periodically and announcing their impending death is not serving anybody’s cause. More so in a world where brands remain crucial for commerce and growth.

"Beating up agencies periodically and announcing their impending death is not serving anybody’s cause."

Not simply because I come from the world of creative agencies (includes both boutiques and full-service agencies), but more in the interest of creating glorious brands and marketing communications, it is time we all took a breather going back to first principles. Making the creative agencies the proverbial whipping boy and blaming them for all our woes misses the point totally, not allowing them to play to their strengths. A more mature discussion will enable us to address the real issues while nurturing and protecting what we continue to badly need. 

Paradoxically, now than ever before we need ideas to be central to everything we do. I say this taking full cognisance of the new developments from data led marketing to the accent on performance. For instance, with a zillion content pieces being put out every second, the need to worry about quality of messaging is at an all-time high. But of course, the new age is complex, needs agility, needs dynamism and a new sharper understanding of how ideas travel in the digital world. But none of this negates the need for good strong ideas that persuade. And creating such ideas has been the raison d’etre of creative agencies.

So, my simple-minded question is: In a VUCA and BANI world, with so many exciting things happening all the time, and with consumers guzzling so much interesting content, how could creative agencies die and why do they need to die in the first place? And why do we need to announce it with glee as if it’s an idea whose ship has sailed?

It is important to understand that creative organisations are not about infrastructure alone. The big, rare, and crucial X factor is their ‘creative culture’. One that knows how to foster eclectic thinking and ideation - something that cannot be easily and mechanically emulated. It needs a lot of doing. It needs interesting leaders. It needs fair remuneration. It needs ‘deceptively relaxed’ working styles and more…They are about a unique ecosystem that thrives only when the culture is enabling and encourages learning loops. A free-spirited environment that allows talented people to breathe without feeling hemmed in. The best of breed creative stalwarts will agree that this is what allowed them to create big and memorable ideas. Unsurprisingly so, no great idea has ever seen the light of day without a client-agency relationship that is based on mutual respect and a sense of happiness.

While at it, let’s also look at the three big themes that keep coming up in the context of ‘dying agencies’:

Are consultancies a threat?

When a few consultancies acquired agencies, there was a strong feeling that they are ‘taking over’. It hasn’t worked. This btw should not surprise the savvy lot. After all a creative culture cannot be easily replicated and certainly cannot thrive in the midst of an alien (to creativity) environment.

Are in-house agencies a threat? (On site studios that do tactical work are not being discussed here).

If it is so easy to set up a successful creative agency in-house, why haven’t we seen them thrive? If all it needs is office space, a few Macs and some freelancers, why aren’t great award winning ideas coming from in-house agencies? Simply because it is not and will never be a mechanical exercise. So let’s not waste our breath here. Few stray examples don’t prove any point.

Are tech companies a threat?

There is a weird assumption working overtime that the world of data, analytics, performance marketing and so on has converted all of us consumers into cold, logical and left-brained individuals. And nothing could be further from the truth. Interesting and exciting content is flourishing in all forms. Even big new age clients like Facebook, WhatsApp and Swiggy continue to deeply believe in the role of ideas and storytelling as a pillar of brand building.

"There is a weird assumption working overtime that the world of data, analytics, performance marketing and so on has converted all of us consumers into cold, logical and left-brained individuals. And nothing could be further from the truth."

Pushing agencies to go overboard on ‘tech’ is making everyone fall between two stools. Agencies given their DNA, need to remain busy with ideas and storytelling (now in myriad different forms for different platforms) instead of pretending to be tech first companies. Something that even holding companies of agencies need to understand. Pushing them to go tech without protecting their core strengths of creativity and ideation will kill them. Meanwhile creative agencies need to understand and leverage tech exactly the way a storyteller-filmmaker uses research, animation, drones, under water cameras and so on. Not miss the wood for the trees. Because the digital world too needs talent and ideas more than ever before. 

Which then brings us to the subject of client-agency relationships and what it will take to revitalise them. To rebuild the creative culture, we need to examine the suggestion that agencies have been busy shooting themselves in the foot – all by themselves. In saying this, the idea is certainly not to play a blame game with clients. Equally it isn’t to absolve the agencies of their misgivings either. What is needed is a constructive discussion without worrying about calling a spade a spade.

"To rebuild the creative culture, we need to examine the suggestion that agencies have been busy shooting themselves in the foot – all by themselves."

No creative organisation can thrive on its own, without the active involvement and support from ‘buyers’. Clients as our partners, need to accept that they cannot remain uninvolved bystanders in this discussion around the possible (?) demise of agencies, when we know that agencies work only at the behest of clients. Just as music directors work at the behest of directors and architects work at the behest of clients, so also ad agencies work best with the total support, encouragement, and contribution of clients.

I must hasten to add that there are glorious exceptions among clients who are amazing at what they do and know exactly how to get the best ideas out of their partners while still prioritising business growth. Hats off to such clients who encourage agencies to crack and deliver on big ideas. The brands with the longest history of great work have been based on long-term relationships. There are examples galore both in India and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true with a majority of the clients. IMHO and given their need for strong ideas, clients need to respect the professional needs of their creative partners and examine if their actions, behaviours and processes are nourishing these needs? (This article isn’t about being kind to the agencies. It is about being kind to the brand(s).

From a time when the client agency relationship used to be based on candour and frankness, it has now degenerated into an equation where clients think they can give scathing feedback to an agency but take severe offence when the agency does the same. Therein lies the rub and hence the need for this piece to talk candidly of where and how things could improve.

Perhaps unwittingly if not systematically, clients have contributed to the erosion of the culture of creative agencies through their misplaced priorities, wrong and undue expectations, unfair deadlines, and unfair remuneration practices. These are not irrelevant issues. They are realities that tangibly hurt the creative spirit and quality. Here’s what’s not going right:

Respect for the business of the agency: Dictating what structures the agency should have instead of focusing on outcomes. Appreciating that agencies also run a business that costs pretty penny.

Creative sensibility and appreciation: Not investing time in understanding the worth of the creative idea by creating a ‘any colour is ok so long as it’s black’ environment. ‘Letting loose’ untrained and un-ready brand managers on the agency to approve work.

Winning collaboration: Not getting all core partners i.e., creative, media and digital to talk to one another when they are all meant to be serving a common master (read brand).

Saner work practices: Briefing the agency (as a habit) on a Friday evening and expecting a cracker of a campaign on Monday morning. Giving bad and uninspiring briefs.

Fair approach to remuneration: Unilaterally choosing to pay less. At times, not giving even an inflationary increase in y-o-y fees in a retainer equation. Running blind pitches (not revealing revenues and names of participants).

Secure equation: Above all keeping the agency in a scared state of mind. Threatening your partner with a pitch has never led to great outcomes. All of this is a recipe for demotivation and mediocre ideas and hence needs correction.

Agencies on their part, have a job to do. They need to get onto a faster learning curve. They must deeply appreciate the complex jobs that our clients do. ‘Approving campaigns’ isn’t their only concern.

Being trusted advisors: Getting to be seen as one needs a lot of doing. Archaic structures that are neither efficient nor profitable need to be revisited on a yesterday basis. Capability building and collaboration needs to work like a well-oiled machine.

Protecting the specialist position: Agencies must not shy away from educating clients when they falter. Don’t only sell. As specialists, educate the uninitiated clients too, and win them over. Remain accountable. Don’t rush into solving a problem without proper alignment with the key client. Use the immense knowledge that you and your planners possess.

Ensuring fair remuneration: Talk credibly and frankly about remuneration. In a hurry to display our bias for optimism, don’t give the impression that we don’t need the money. Contrary to popular perception, we work hard even if we talk more about partying . Run a tight ship with agility.

Role of the holding company: For enabling all this, holding companies - among other things - need to worry about the agency CEO profile. Bean counters who have no passion for creativity have contributed no less to the erosion of our DNA. All of this is a recipe for bouncing back as trusted advisors.

Business and Ideas have competing instincts. Business seeks predictability and certainty first while seeking growth. Growth comes from ideas that are born from the freedom of the human mind and through the messiness and chaos of interactions with other complex human beings. The business of ideas was, is and will always therefore be an exciting journey. It needs partners who choose to believe in one another, and form friendships based on mutual accountability. Belief and accountability being the yin and the yang.

Finally, life and work offer us two choices. To believe that we are ‘building’ something or to believe that we are ‘battling’ something. It is time we refocused our attention to building relationships, building ideas, building capabilities and generally playing to our strengths. Both clients and agencies have a lot to learn and gain from their respective capabilities. In doing so we will both play harder, work harder, and win more often.

The author is Ex-CEO, Taproot Dentsu.

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