What Brands Really Think of Agencies

Over the past six months, Digiday has used the Confessions series to spark honest conversations about the tough issues in the industry. We are trying something new with an offshoot of this effort that we’re calling “What Brands Really Think.” The digital media industry is not short on those who freely offer their opinions, but it is rare to hear the true opinions of those who control the purse strings — and make the entire system operate. We spoke to a pair of high-level executives at Fortune 100 brands to get their opinion on agencies — the good, the bad and the ugly. In future installments, we’ll widen our pool of brand execs and address other issues, including their needs from publishers, how they feel about Facebook and what internal tensions keep brands from moving faster in digital media. If you’re an executive at a large brand and would like to participate, please contact me at the email address at the bottom of the story.

Agencies constantly complain about being treated like vendors. Is this fair?
I realize this is kind of an emotional question. Vendor sounds pejorative. Strategic partner sounds so much better! No one likes getting treated like a vendor, either. But, it’s work and it’s business. From my perspective, I don’t see a lot of strategic foresight from the agencies we work with. They are “strategic” in the way they execute the work we need them to do. The consumer insight might be strategic. The approach to our content and media partners might be called “strategic”. But those are all in the context of the work we need them to do. There are only two out of the dozens we work with that I’d call strategic: able to help us understand the complexity of our macro business situation, the changing dynamics of the consumer landscape and vagaries of the media and tech landscape and come up with a multi-year approach. What separates out vendors from strategic partners are the ones that have a clear vision for their role in our business’s future, see where things are evolving, and will evolve quickly to help us get there faster. In other words, they aren’t running their businesses strategically. They are still, in almost all cases, running the same business model they’ve been running for years and years. There are bright spots, and those are the ones we try to cultivate and nurture like true partners. — Brand X

What’s the most frustrating part of dealing with agencies?
Legacy business models that get in the way of awesome work. This is an incredible time to be in the creative and connections business. Such great tools! It’s like magic! And the talent that’s available within a couple clicks! Mind-blowing. But we’re stuck with the junior creative team that the hotshot creative leader hired before she left three months ago. Agencies have invested in talent (which is good) as their differentiator. But they’ve overinvested in “creative.” In the old days, great creative people were really hard to find. But that’s changed. The best agencies now are smart generalists, who can produce great creative work by going out and finding the best talent across the globe. They are curators of great networks of talented creatives. — Brand X

What don’t agencies get about life at a big brand?
Digital creative agencies don’t fully understand what it takes to sell ideas through a huge company. They have tiny teams that come up with crazy ideas that they all love. There’s no hierarchy, and 12 points of approval, and no education that needs to be done. There are so many steps at a brand that don’t exist on the agency side. I’d have to pre-sell ideas internally. There are people who don’t know what an Instagram is or how the new advertising on Facebook works. Sometimes it’s not even about the brand in the meeting. It may be someone from innovation or sales. The agencies don’t understand that a sales guy saying Wal-Mart is asking why there isn’t more mobile can be an impetus for a brand platform in mobile. They don’t understand where all the levers are in a political environment. There’s so much more that goes on behind the scenes. — Brand Y

What’s your ideal agency setup?
For a single brand — assume for argument a national CPG brand with a significant consumer spent $8 million to $20 million. I’d love to have a team that looks like this. First, a creative agency to lead the brand communications planning, from creative idea to holistic production across touch-points. This agency would be organized according to clients, and be cross-functional, cross-media, not organized by functional expertise like a typical agency (media, creative, account). We wouldn’t have traditional account people. We’d work closely with the makers, the creators of the work and the makers would be accountable and collaborative to the clients. (It seems like the whole account function in our agencies is designed to “protect” the “creative” from the client and vice versa).

The creative agency would essentially play contractor to other executional or operational shops. TV expression/execution would building TV spots to support the campaign/messaging. Media agency would execute major, national media planning efforts focused on awareness, efficiency and mass media. For media relations/traditional PR, a small shop that knows how to get more traditional press integration

The agency would get paid to bring together the best partners around. Today, our agencies get paid to have the best creative ideas and execution, in the new model, I’d pay the agencies to curate/find the best ideas and executions. It’s a huge difference. — Brand X

Image via Shutterstock.

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