Shops Must Be Partners, Not Just Vendors

Tomorrow’s successful advertising agencies will have navigated an identity crisis.
They won’t be “vendors,” like they, or their predecessors before them, always have been. They won’t be contractors, service providers, or jobbers. They’ll be partners.
“Vendors” are hired to do a job — and often are paid a fee regardless of performance. Sure, they want to perform well, if only for the benefit of the client who’s hired them for an engagement or their trophy mantle. But if a vendor’s work stinks, it’s summarily pink-slipped, albeit with contracted fee in hand.
While a “partner” can be jettisoned just as easily, they’re more motivated to see that they’re not. The incentive? They get a cut of the action.
It’s not about asking, “What would I do if this were my business?” It’s asking, “What will I do — today — to drive traffic, sales, comps and margins?” You know you’re doing it right when before you even get into the office you’ve reviewed client overnight metrics and determined whether you’ve met revenues, comps and margins. And, in your morning meeting, you’re asking what the agency can do to improve a client’s social media plan or call-to-action, or how to encourage even more visitors to download that coupon to drive sales.
This is called “accountability.” Partners live it. Vendors give it lip service. Without skin in the game it’s just another word, if one historically hated by the agency world.
Accountability and ROI are not about the work. They’re about the strategy. Sure, my creative team wants to create ads that are striking, memorable and award worthy. But creativity in pursuit of awards should give deference to creativity in pursuit of measurable metrics, to creativity born of strategy designed to move needles and mind share. It’s a holistic strategy that differentiates the brand, and drives results and market share. It gives consumers a better reason than price to buy a product or service.
Few embrace the difference. It’s not about revenues when you win an account, but profits and market share gained when you’ve touched it. It’s about how you convince a prospect to bring you on as a partner, how you talk about your prospect’s business — and how your research will lead to a differentiating strategy, and how your spirited desire to drive traffic and transactions will make all the difference in their competitive landscapes.
I’m still not sure the agency world is prepared to embrace this. I’m not even sure they don’t know what they don’t know.
Most “successful” agencies don’t want to hear about real accountability. It’s too much risk with no guaranteed reward. My message: Stop boasting about “award-winning” work, and stop complaining about “accountability” like it’s some four-letter word. Besides, if we don’t deliver results, we shouldn’t call ourselves “partners” and we don’t deserve to get paid anyway.
I had a clear vision 20 years ago. I wasn’t going to get caught up in some myth about creativity. I knew then what has come true today: The competition is getting increasingly crowded. Creativity won’t set you apart. Meaningful strategy will.
Michael Jordan once said, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” But there are two in “pink slip.”