Agents of change

With a new batch of creative graduates on the market, ready to make their way in the world, it’s easy to think that in-house recruitment of the latest talent will solve all your marketing problems. Terry van Rhyn explains why ad agencies still have a role to play in your brand strategy and development

Having spent almost 40 years in the mad and crazy world of ad agency ownership, it’s certainly a long time since I arrived fresh-faced at my first job in marketing, ready to take on the world.

Interestingly, while the marketing industry has changed enormously over that period, fuelled in particular by new technology, one of the things that hasn’t changed much is the needs of a client or brand. Fundamentally every brand still needs to build a relationship with its customers and consumers – and needs to make the case for why they are the better choice.

It’s true that marketing budgets have decreased significantly in certain sectors while, at the same time, there are so many more exciting new communication vehicles and channels that weren’t there a couple of decades ago. This makes it an exciting if challenging time to become part of the marketing and advertising industry.

On the other hand, we are seeing fewer clients forming long-term partnerships with their agencies. This used to happen because agencies were respected for their input, advice, guidance, loyalty and commitment. Today there is less of an inclination to forge a long-lasting relationship at the outset and more of a bit-part approach to buying in certain services.

This is no doubt due, in part at least, to the fact that the raison d’etre of ad agencies has been challenged over recent years. Principally through the ready access to creative programmes that, on the surface, appear to be a no-brainer for the client’s own marketing team to use internally. 

The introduction of software like InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator has more easily handed the design and layout tools to someone in-house to produce designs, sometimes in their “spare” time. Not to mention how easy it is to create social media exposure for your brand through someone in the office who is young enough to “get it” and who can do a few quick posts during their lunch breaks. 

Professions such as photography have also been under threat over the past two decades due to the proliferation of stock photography houses or indeed the perception that the quality of an iPhone picture is good enough. At times even copywriting services can become challenged by the uncanny skill set of the marketing manager or even the MD. 

To the untrained eye these are all very real money-saving solutions delivered by people on the inside who know what the business is all about. The picture is on the page, the words are there, the boxes have been ticked – right?  Well, I’d say wrong! 

One of the key things you get from a good agency is challenge. Challenge that goes right to a very strategic business level. I call it holding up a mirror to the client and having the “warts and all” discussion.

This is where an agency’s true worth comes in. The value lies in working with people outside of the business who will ask the awkward questions and objectively assess your communications and how well they fit with what your consumers are looking for. They will help you uncover the basic truth of your brand and help you build a brand story that is based on a solid proposition.

(Agencies should never be afraid to tell the truth as most probably the MD/CEO is surrounded by people telling them what they want to hear. Alternatively, everybody is so close to the grindstone that nobody inside the organisation can see the big picture!) 

Another key reason to use an agency is the shared knowledge and expertise amongst the agency staff. While in-house staff will undoubtedly have some of the skills required, every person in an agency is typically a specialist in their field. The trick for the agency owner is to gather the right combination of talent to create the magic.

Other advantages of agency support are the buying power and professional contacts they hold, their diversity and experience across different sectors and sizes of business, and the amount of time they will free up among your own staff to do other things.

It’s worth noting that some of the best business/agency relationships I have enjoyed are where the agency has been considered as an extension of the business. In effect, where the agency has worked with the internal marketing team or rep as part of an inclusive approach by the business, and where open and honest communication has been welcomed.

There are some caveats to using an agency of course. Firstly, they may not be right for every business as there is a substantial financial investment required.  This investment has to be set off against projected increase in revenue and all good agencies will want to measure return on investment as part of their success criteria.

Also if you are considering asking for agencies to pitch for work, the complex nature of many businesses today mean that a great deal of work has to be done to pull together all the different parts of a plan. If you want massively detailed proposals, you should be prepared to pay the pitching agencies for their time and ideas.

Finally, if you have no serious intention of using an agency but are just hoping to pick up a good idea or two, please don’t. Sure, an agency might throw out some initial ideas but invariably these need to be developed to really work hard and deliver business benefit.

Because it’s not about pretty pictures, catchy headlines, funky social media posts and an amazingly cool website that can be cooked up in half an hour from a DIY manual. It’s about whether or not all the things you do drive business to your door. That’s where the input of an agency can really prove its worth – and it’s what you should ask them to do and how you should measure their results!