‘It’s demoralizing’: Confessions of a creative director on the effects of project-based work

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This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

The shift to project-based work assignments rather that agency-of-record commitments is changing the agency business — and the agency-client relationship. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from a creative director at an independent creative agency about why agencies don’t do the best work for clients when the assignment is project-based and how short-term thinking is negatively affecting both businesses.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How do project-based work assignments change how an agency works for a client?
A great idea has legs. Often, a campaign doesn’t really get great until you’re down the road a bit. I think about Flo from Progressive. It was relatively lame, straightforward talking head when it started. She grew into a character and then they started being able to improvise. The stuff got really funny and fresh but it took time. In this world of projects you don’t have time. You get hired by a client, who tells you they have this thing they need to get done and it’s six months and then it’s over. It’s kind of demoralizing.

Brand building is like pushing a rock up a hill and the moment you stop the rock rolls back down again. Project-based work feels like you get hired to push a rock up a hill, you go away and it rolls back down again. It’s like what’s the point? Why even bother? I don’t know if clients will come around and see that or if their world has become so short-term that they’re living quarter to quarter that they frankly don’t care about what happens two quarters from now because they’ll have moved on.

Do you think marketers’ focus on short-term growth is leading to more project-based work?
[Short-term thinking] is how clients get into a death spiral, that they’re so obsessed with sales today that they sacrifice brand building. You can get away with that for a while but eventually, it catches up to you. If your brand doesn’t bring any extra value to consumers’ minds then you’re just a commodity. I get the short-term need to deliver sales today but if that’s all you do your tomorrow is not going to look that great.

How does it change the relationship with the client?
When you’re hired in a restricted way with [the assignment] of a campaign in the next four months to do something specific you’re at arm’s length from their business and you don’t really get to add as much value as you could. This sounds terrible, but you don’t care as much. You feel like a mercenary. The soldiers who fight the hardest are the ones who believe in their flag and they’re fighting for a bigger cause. When you’re just a mercenary hired to do something and get out you behave differently — and not better. I can see that’s the kind of thing that would get clients to be turned off from agencies if they see that kind of behavior and that could become a death spiral in itself.

So it becomes more transactional?
In a pure service relationship, where the client says they want 10 Facebook ads and they won’t spend more than $5,000 or whatever, I’m only going to give the minimum because I don’t see any future in it. Why would I overdeliver when you’ve made it clear there’s no future, it’s very transactional and there’s this [lack of trust]? We kill ourselves on the clients who trust us because we feel an obligation. When they’re holding us at arm’s length, they don’t trust us, they challenge every invoice, if they want to be that way we’ll do the minimum. But that’s not how we want to work. It’s not fun.

Does the shift to more project-based work scare you?
It does. One of the things we’ve realized is that as our revenue has gotten more variable we’ve had to make our cost structure more variable. That means more freelancers. There’s a lot of great freelancers but that’s also a mercenary mindset. The best work comes from tight-knit teams that know each other and trust each other over a period of time. That becomes harder when you can’t staff that way. Freelancers can be a mixed bag. I do think there’s a risk. Will we be able to still do great work without our classic model of a tight, well-tested team? It also perpetuates the worst stereotype about agencies, which is that we’re all smoke and mirrors because the people in the pitch aren’t even working on the business. That becomes especially true when it’s a world of freelancers coming in, which you have to do because the client did not give you a two-year contract but a six-month project.

But marketing departments inside companies also feel more unstable. Do you think marketers are doing this because they don’t know where they’ll be long-term?
Seems like it. We’re just the trickle-down of their instability. Every business that we work in is being rocked and shaken up and they don’t know what’s coming next. They don’t know if Amazon is going to come in and destroy them. Years ago, they might’ve had a three or five-year plan. That feels impossible to do now so they don’t commit resources that much farther out and that trickles down to us. I always feel like agencies are like canaries in the economic coal mine — whatever happens in the economy in general happens in an exaggerated fashion in the agency world.

Do they still try to push out payment terms with project-based work?
Oh, yeah. We’ve had billion-dollar clients try to put our little agency on 90-day terms where we’re providing financing to these billion-dollar companies. The nerve. But that’s capitalism, kill or be killed. Our dream is not to be at war with our clients. Our dream is they trust us and we trust them.


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