Evolution of the Agency and the Brand

We’ve all seen Mad Men or can imagine a variation of the show. It depicts agencies, wining and dining their clients, having the three martini lunches, and eventually revealing sexy, controversial advertising campaign concepts. Is that reality? It somewhat was and somewhat still is. But there’s much more.

The 60s and 70s…

Looking at the decades we can see a simple recap in this light. The 60’s and 70’s were all about great concepts. Broadcast media was evolved and every tagline and concept was new. Things from I [heart] New York to “Think Small” for Volkswagen’s Bug were great concepts that worked. Car companies were huge to the agency world. No one was spending more on advertising and they were the crown jewel – growing fast, spending money. In these generations, brands typically had one agency – the Agency of Record (AOR) – a prestigious title for a prestigious position.

The 80s…

… came around and the AOR model continued, but it started to shift a bit. The creative and messaging was a bit less exciting of a territory for clients. The ‘new’ and growing methods of reaching consumers were exploding, and the affluence that followed a minor recession in the 70s was immense. Consumers were spending.

What changed significantly in the marketing world was more on the agency side than the consumer side. The agencies that were made big (huge) by the automotive, tobacco, financial and consumer goods industries, were now consolidating. Acquisition of small companies continued to happen, but even large agencies were getting swallowed-up by each other or new ownership. Banks were willing to finance these deals because of two decades of phenomenal growth.

This consolidation was also happening on the client side. There were amazing deals happening with Kraft, Nabisco, Philip Morris Cos., Kodak, Pillsbury… all the great names were buying or being bought. By the close of the 1980’s the top 100 advertising brands had consolidated to 1/3 the size.

This caused issues for agencies and brands. The consolidations created conflicts of interest, everywhere. Agencies were handling accounts for competing brands. That would never work. Thus, the 80’s started the shift of the AOR model. Brands started to split their advertising budgets among several agencies – a media buying agency, a creative agency, a strategic agency, and others. The game had changed for agencies. And, candidly, agencies were scared.

The 90s…

… changed everything, once again. Baby boomers were aging, consumer marketing was shifting to target segment groups. Agencies and brands could use data and smarter channels to segment their marketing efforts and this was a must. The cost of advertising was increasing rapidly. Segmenting and specialized marketing groups were necessary. Agencies were splitting into specialty areas to meet the new demands of clients. Each claiming their big agency could manage many single service lines or segments, each as a unique focus. Specialty marketing groups popped up to service immigrant, youth, senior, women and other target market groups. Everything was being broken into pieces. Not to mention, internet commerce was exploding, and creating, yet another, segment. Agencies were more important than ever to brands, but they weren’t able to meet the demands of brands because most were too big, too slow to shift, and too stuck in the past. They missed their make money on media world. Thus, a whole new world of agencies was created. Unfortunately, the creation was to meet the demand of brands, and it didn’t necessarily meet the goals of the brands at first. The model was simply too new and too immature to have great outcomes for brands. Brands lost faith in their agencies.

By the late 1990s, brands were using a plethora of agencies, testing all sorts of new marketing techniques, addressing multiple market segments, attempting to catch up to the amount of data being captured, and doing all this on shrinking budgets. It didn’t work.

The New Millennium, 2000s…

… saw brands start to consolidate their agency selections, once again. Agencies were maturing. They were deciding their area of specialty and committing to those areas. They were servicing brands better. However, there was still a need for multiple agencies. The brands still had not fully determined how to best use the data they had been collecting, standards in digital were far from being established, and there were still even more technologies on the rise to learn about. How could a brand keep up? And, how could agencies selecting a focus area also continue to explore new areas? The shift was incredibly challenging. Social media was exploding, mobile technology was massive, app development was winning amazing adoption rates, and even the business model delivery of brands was shifting.

How consumers were buying changed throughout the first 10 years of this new century. Loyalty programs were in full swing and working, subscription models gave new pricing approaches and access to new consumer markets, shipping systems were meeting the consumer demands and continuing the shift from brick and mortar, and the consumers were smarter, better equipped shoppers, and ready to challenge the brands.


Here we are just about to jump into 2017. We are in the last few years of the second decade of the new millennium, and we’ve already seen this decade’s major factors trending. We are in a period of social commerce. The value of a person’s relationship to a brand is more important than a single transaction. Brands have witnessed the power of a single blogger, a single incident that spreads across Twitter and Facebook, and the viral (yes, I used that word) video on Instagram. A share price is influenced by an illness outbreak at Chipotle or a green movement by Starbucks, all because of social media’s reach.

What do agencies and brands need to do in order to be successful? They must partner. If brands wish to create long-term relationships with their consumers, they can’t do this in single year contract relationships with agencies. They must be hyper-strategic over multiple years.

This is a shift. It’s a change from the annual ‘magic curtain’ to one of transparency, partnership, alignment, and collaboration. It’s not a minor change.

The “Magic Curtain”

The magic curtain is what agencies these days joke about. We didn’t realize it back then, but we were missing vital steps in a process. The magic curtain is probably the singular, consistent, poor methodology that agencies have followed for decades. Simply put, this is when select members of the agency, typically those who will not be directly doing the work, chat with the customer to “discover” what the customer needs. Then, they go back to their teams, disappearing behind the “magic curtain.” It is here the agency pulls in the do’ers, the thinkers, the creative, media guys and gals, and the techs. And, they create.

In a vacuum, armed with only the information clients gave to the few team members who performed ‘discovery’, the whole team now concepts and creates. The ‘client’ becomes the account service person who was the medium between the agency and the brand. This is not good. What happens is the ‘new client,’ the internal account service person, becomes an interpreter, predictor, and frankly guesser of what the real brand wants and needs.

After the magic is created behind the curtain, the agency brings a team back to the client to present their brilliance. Clients may get excited by pretty creative, cute taglines, and, perhaps, even good strategy. The agency may have done a decent job. In some cases, the agency nails exactly what the client does need, whether the agency or the client knows it or not.

Then comes the execution. It’s not just about a single blackboard with a cool hand-sketched ad concept with some mock type on the sheet. It’s not about all the ‘generalized’ conversations that have taken place. It’s about the execution in all its glorious details.

Marketing channels are so diverse and powerful today that there’s much more to any advertising campaign execution than the concept. Where are the media placements being made? How tight do we know our target audience and buying personas of those various, unique individuals? Does the digital technology team know how to build supporting web assets? What are the specific call-to-action pieces? Does the campaign drive traffic to a brick and mortar store or an online store?

All these details have been missing from this process. It started in a generalized fashion and ended with a “looks good, now let’s go” execution. Success is unlikely. This is causing brands and agencies to change their ways.

The dynamic duo of agency and brand has returned to a partnership relationship. There is nothing so powerful as working collaboratively across teams. Good agencies and smart brands have realized this. Sure, agencies still need great creative, writing, strategy, and definitely technology, but without a solid plan, an aligned effort and focus, and a team of talent, brands will never reach the success they seek.

Agencies who still go behind the magic curtain will not thrive. More important, brands that accept this behavior will struggle. When you rip down the magic curtain some pretty amazing things happen. And, they happen faster, smarter, and more thoroughly than ever before.

Brand-Agency Teaming

Here’s a brief insight into what happens when you pull down the magic curtain and engage the full agency team including members of creative, digital, strategy, media planning, social, etc. and full brand teams including executive level, marketing, customer service, sales, etc.

One Team – Imagine walking into a room where there’s one team working together, comprised of the smartest people on the company’s brands, products, markets, long range goals, and as part of that team, experts on how to get those products and services to market, increase sales, and drive long-term brand equity? 

Strategy – It’s probably not surprising that while many brands think they have a strategy, it is un-communicated, un-documented, and lacking details for short-term and long-term execution. A brand-agency team develops that strategy to be better, stronger and more impactful than ever before. These strategies have teams thinking about what has to happen immediately, and how to perform today with best positioning for tomorrow’s next step.

Faster Execution – With both teams fully on the same page, armed with the big picture and the details, execution happens quickly. There are fewer revisions to work, reduced missteps in direction, and better communication among all team members. Everyone hits the mark quicker and more on target.

Talent Excels – The ability for talent in all areas to shine is much greater on a highly functioning team. Team members constantly challenge each other to be better, think creatively, and to reach a higher level of achievement. All members become better. Creatives are more creative in the right direction. Strategists are more strategic across multiple channels. And so on. Exploring new technologies, new market approaches, new concepts are all able to happen with strong teams.

Leadership Alignment – Having the executive and leadership teams part of the process from the start means their core strategic objectives are known and understood. Thus, the marketing teams perform better for the executive group. Once again, this improves the rate of execution, hitting the target earlier, and with greater impact. Leadership is executing across many areas of the brand and corporate structure, and thus need to know alignment is saturated.

Maximized Budget – It’s only logical that with a stronger collaborative team, fewer project revisions, reduced misdirection, and deeper talent applied to all marketing efforts, the budget goes further and yields more. Dollars are spent more intelligently, in the right areas, and with greater certainty of outcomes.

Right Results – Finally, there are the results. These are much more widespread than numbers on a sheet. With absolute certainty, the results as marketers and sales teams know them are improved. The quantitative measurement of marketing and sales efforts show positive results – follows, Likes, conversions, purchases, loyalty measurement, client satisfaction referrals, all areas. Equally important are the subjective results. A happier team increases performance and improves retention of team members and institutional knowledge for an even greater tomorrow.

From an agency owner who loves to collaborate with brands, “go tear down that magic curtain and get together with your agency.”



Bet on Winners

I was having dinner last night with an old friend and he said, “you would never buy a race horse that was proven to come in 2nd or 3rd place and never first so why would you hire that employee?” Arguably you could say that out of 100 potential applicants you are doing pretty good with the persons sitting immediately behind the 1st place hire. But his observation did make me pause to think, “how often do we make a concession when hiring?”

Over my 25 years in business, I’ve read, talked, practically smoke signaled about the topic of hiring. I have definitely come to my own conclusions.

  • Hire slow, fire fast!
  • An employer with value will attract the best.
  • You share a future with your employees.
  • Fit matters.

The horse race analogy is a priceless piece of advice. All too often I hear a business owner or leader state, “we can’t afford the best talent.” Really? When you provide customer service, pursue new business development, enhance your products, or perform any other function within your company, you want to be second-rate at best?

Here’s the key. Not all blue ribbon winners are proven, yet. It is your job to identify who can be the first place winner with your help. There are certain qualifications a person needs to work for your company and to possibly be the unproven 1st placer.

  • Smarts – Obviously, they need to have the smarts to do the job. This should be the easiest area for you to evaluate.
  • Attitude – This isn’t just culture and fit. This extends beyond that. Someone could be a great personable fit in your office, but not share the same priorities of your core values.
  • Outlook – Where that new team member wants to go in their career, your company will follow. Longevity is a concern with outlook too. Will your company be able to provide a bright future with lots of opportunity?

There is a lot of discussion around fit, culture, style, and personality in business and especially in hiring. This is an area where I have continued to refine my opinions over time and through many experiences. I believe fit is absolutely essential to success. I used to say, “I don’t need to want to hang out with every employee. If this one person is a bit different then I may have other employees or clients who appreciate their style more than I.”

Well, hog posh. 

There’s a reason teams succeed and it is because of all these factors combined – fit, style, outlook, attitude, culture, personality. And, every one of these, each with their own nuances is essential to a successful hire. This may be a more difficult area to evaluate in an interview so don’t stop there.

You aren’t looking for drone clones to drive your company forward so be prepared for many personalities, but you do want to ensure the overall core values are shared among all your people. These core values are the bedrock of all the other items –

  • Personality – you can be funny, ha ha, or you can be funny by mocking and hurting others.
  • Drive – you can want to achieve more by backstabbing or by supporting others.
  • Collective Success – you can want to see a company grow and a team succeed or only care about yourself.
  • Smart – you can be smart and know it (too much) or you can share it.

To learn more about someone’s core values you need to get to know them. This isn’t a Q&A session in the interview. It is the discussion on family, background, schooling, and activities. It’s extracting their opinions on many matters. Determine what makes your company great, and what other companies have proven adds value to their team. Then seek out these core values.

Your culture isn’t whether all your employees are health conscious runners or green environment fanatics or volunteer driven community members. Sure, these are great indicators of someone’s core values, but activities are not culture. Your culture is how people treat each other. Is there mutual respect, support and care, nurturing and development, management with mutual goals, and leadership with mentorship?

The fit is mutual. The employee you are hiring needs to see the value with your team and your company. This is an area that I have taken much more seriously in just the last few years. We have a Vice President of Achievement, and their primary goal is to develop employees, help them learn to help others, and to ensure growth is singular and collective. It is amazing how your best employees will embrace this opportunity. You will also realize which employees view continued development as a chore.

It is your job to hire the best person for the company, for the team. It is also your job to bid farewell to those who are not the best. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, aimed to fire the bottom 10% of his company every year. That was quite a bold statement back in the day, and frankly it may not be the most politically correct even behind the boardroom doors. However, I have learned that an extremely important part of my job is to show my team that I support them by weeding out the non-performers with poor attitudes who don’t fit our culture. It is my job to fire people.

I believe in hiring slow, but firing fast. It is a hard commitment to make, but it is a necessary step for success and happiness.

Take your time to hire people. Conduct the interview, then meet them for coffee at another time. Introduce them to team members. Give them a test for job or culture fit. Give them a professional challenge your industry faces, and ask them how to solve the challenge, but in a written response. You will learn a lot through these interactions. In short, get to know them. I guarantee you will hire better.

When you make a mistake, fix it. You will know if you don’t hire the best. You have goals for your company. It’s not a large leap to understand you are hiring team members you believe will reach those goals. If you miss the mark with the hire, you will miss the goals. It happens. Just be sure to address it quickly. If possible, be nice about it. Help the employee transition into a new company and position where they will fit and flourish. This is part of your culture.

Obviously, you cannot do this with everyone. Despite all efforts you will occasionally hire someone who simply doesn’t share core values and is toxic to your company. In these situations, it is important to act fast. Remove the cancer from your team immediately.

Some leaders are afraid to make these changes. They feel it is not the nice thing to do or there will be added pressure on the rest of the team. At the end of the day, it takes more energy and effort to work with someone who doesn’t fit, doesn’t perform, and doesn’t have the same values. Trust that you are doing your employees a favor. I have been thanked numerous times for making these changes, and more often than not, it is accompanied with, “that couldn’t happen fast enough.”

The old saying, “Nice guys finish last,” needs to be modified. It is the “too nice of a guy, who finishes last.” If you are running a business, it is because you are driven to succeed. Nice guys are those men and women who care about leading a company, developing the people, and doing so with support, respect, and a positive outlook. Being too nice actually injures your team and hurts many people. You can be nice and successful.

I may not look forward to my work everyday. Let’s face it, sometimes work is work. But every single day I do look forward to working beside my team.

Millions of Followers Desperate for a Leader

Ever wonder why some people have huge followings? Whether you’re talking about a person, brand, sports team, radio show host, or just an online personality on Twitter or Instagram or any of the many social channels, the reason is always the same. It’s not that there are thousands of followers. It is that there is an extreme lack of leaders. This is true in all realms.

Being a leader is risky, but risk pays. Yes, some people have to lead and may not have planned on it.  Business owners are perfect examples. Perhaps they started their business because of a passion and it grew to the point that it needed employees and thus leadership too. Others choose to be leaders. They want to be the outspoken resource for personal fitness, encouragement and strength, startups, venture capital; heck even coffee or toys or hosting service or cloud security. These people are taking risks, putting their opinions out, being outspoken on topics, and not always in agreement with the masses. Safe positions will not be exciting. Consider talk radio hosts for a moment. Have you noticed how many of the callers disagree with the host? Yet, they are listening and following? This represents precisely why people gain popularity. They start a conversation and put an opinion out there.

Following a leader feels good and creates opportunity. At heart, humans have a pack mentality. We like to be part of a pack and to follow a leader. It contributes to a feeling of commitment and belonging. However, we also like to know where we stand in the pack. Status and position are extremely important. One thing to note here is that there aren’t just two positions – the leader and follower. There are many in between. Wanting to be a specific leader can be part of the reason to follow that leader. Take personal fitness and the online personalities who have evolved as popular characters on their channel. Many people follow just to be in line with that leader. They like the forward momentum and the feeling. Do not mistake this for a casual desire to follow. Many of these individuals follow because they now have access to the whole pack. They can share their stories and pictures. They can win their own followers as a small subset of the full pack. They can possibly win recognition from the leader. These examples can be seen in politics with factions of a party or with boyscouts who want to have recognition with the most merit badges.

Being real and imperfect is leadership. The polish of yesterday is gone. Livestreams, instant recordings on YouTube, Vine or Instagram and the thousands of citizen reporters have exposed the raw truth about every leader. They are not perfect. They do not sit in ivory towers that are untouchable by chaos, scandal or mistakes. The veil of Oz has fallen. The element of being real and having failures actually propels leaders forward.

Think about Elon Musk and Tesla Motors. He tackles adversity in innovation and critiques in the media head-on. He doesn’t shy away. He doesn’t hide behind polished press releases. He is real. You only need to consider brands like Starbucks which are challenged with permitting guns to be carried into their establishments or promoting equality for the LGBT community. These brands are real and people follow that. They may not agree with the leader in all instances, but they follow because of what they represent at the core.

Leaders give followers what they want. This will vary by follower, but there are basic elements that drive all followers to engage.

Future – A leader provides the follower with a vision for the future. They paint the picture of tomorrow and the opportunities and glories that are to come. Leaders also don’t shy away from reality. They tell it like it is. If tomorrow will be tough, but the days after great – they don’t just say it. They proclaim it.

Access – A family of followers represents a network to be tapped by any follower. Connecting with people of the same mindset and similar goals can be a priceless opportunity. Building a network is not just for the followers. You will consistently see leaders reach out to tap a new audience, embrace another group, and grow the family.

Empowerment – People need motivation. They want motivation. Leaders provide this through encouragement and empowerment. It’s like the army’s “Be all you can be.” for everyone. Without empowering others, leaders will not succeed. Look at all the great leaders and you will see that they don’t cut down people to get ahead, they raise them up.

Competition – People generally want to succeed. This means they need a challenge. Leaders provide subtle and direct challenges. Oftentimes, the challenge may be expressed directly in a goal such as weight loss or it may be indirect but comparable to others such as how many miles did you run this week. As a pack member you get to decide what success is.

What can brands takeaway from this review of Leaders and Followers? Be different. Apple said Think Different and they were right. It’s not about blending into the crowd and making safe choices. Striving to avoid conflict with any one individual or group will simply make you boring and irrelevant.

Speak up. Stand out. Take the reins and lead. Leadership is there for the taking. Don’t be shy.