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Is Your Agency Too Busy to Change?
By Mike Carlton

A Simple Business

The agency business has always been pretty simple. You get clients. You do great work that moves their audience. You bill them. They pay you. And, everybodyís happy. While there are lots of subtle variations to this equation, it has never been very complicated. Until now.

Itís a new world. Agencies are being besieged by complexity. It is coming from all directions. There is more change confronting the agency business today than any of us have ever seen. And, it is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Today, itís harder than ever to get clients. Itís harder than ever to know what kind of work to do for those clients. Itís harder than ever to do great work for clients. Itís harder than ever to build partnering relationships with clients. Itís harder than ever to keep clients. Itís harder than ever to find, grow and keep talented people. Itís harder than ever to differentiate your agency in its marketplace. And, itís harder than ever to make money.

Wow! What happened? Whatís going on? And, what can you do about it?

A Model in Decline

Simply put, the traditional agency business model doesnít work the way it used to. The market has shifted. And, to remain relevant, agencies need to shift, too.

There is no question that the consumer has moved well beyond a basic reliance on broadcast TV as her primary information and entertainment source. Consumersí commercial decisions are being based on information and experiences from all kinds of sources. They are inviting marketers to connect with them in a myriad of new ways. Some of it one-to-one dialogic. Some of it experiential. Some of it just plain cultural buzz. Yet many agencies seem to be mired in the 30 second spot / colorful ad business.

Steve Heyer, former president of Coca-Cola said it best. ďThe magnitude and urgency of change isnít evolutionary Ė itís transformational. Agencies need to rethink the core assumptions and practices of their current business models.Ē

And heís not alone. Hardly a week goes by without the trade press reporting some other influential questioning the business model agencies are following.

OK, Just What is a Business Model?

A business model is the way in which the agency relates to its talent, its clients, the services it provides, and the way it gets paid for those services.

A Look Back

In the historic agency business model, the agency created ads or commercials and got paid a media commission for running them. That was a good model in that if the ad or commercial worked in the marketplace, the client kept running it, and the agency got paid continuing commissions that were a lot like residuals. And, if the ad didnít work, the client stopped running it, and the agency didnít get paid any more until they came up with a new, and presumably better, ad.

Very simple. Very easy. And, very fair.

But the commission system had its limitations. It did not work well on non-media related activities. And, the size of the media budget dictated the level of agency involvement. So marketers and agencies groped for a better model.

As the commission system declined, agencies moved primarily to hourly charge business models. This seemed to make sense as agencies expanded their range of services into non-media activities, which were not commissionable.

From an economic standpoint, hourly charges protected the agency on the downside, but provided little reward on the upside. And, the agency received the same compensation for effective work as it did for ineffective work.

Also, balancing internal time resources became much more complicated, and more difficult. An agency could not sell more time than its staff had available, but if client demand faltered, it could have a lot of un-bought time on its hands.

And worse yet, this model made it appear that the agency was just selling stuff at hourly charges, and was no longer as much of a partner as before. Vendor mentality began creeping into the relationship. Stuff overwhelmed ideas.

All the while, an expanded array of communication avenues was becoming available with which to reach the clientís audience.

The hourly charge for projects model has partially evolved into the fee for services model, which while still hourly cost-based can treat the client much more holistically. In effect, the fee system could allow the agency to become media agnostic, so that all kinds of new avenues of communications could be opened with the clientís audience.

While there has been some experimentation with compensation systems that reward the agency for effectiveness in the clientís marketplace; application of these has been limited, and usually only adopted by more sophisticated marketers.

The Core of the Business Model Issue

With all this change, many of the business models currently used by individual agencies have been arrived at almost by accident. They are often the product of reactive client situations, rather than thoughtful proactive approaches. As such, it is not uncommon to see two glaring weaknesses in them:

  1. They Restrict Innovation
    The consumer is accessible through more avenues than ever. And clients are expecting agencies to lead in the use of these new avenues. Yet, many agencies do not have business models in which they can be fairly compensated using these new avenues.

    So, as a result, it is easy to fall back on the security of using those they are most familiar with, and know they can make money at. Thus, the 30 second spot / colorful ad rut.

  2. There is Little Reward for Outstanding Work
    The client receives a fundamental economic benefit from creative leverage. A great idea moves an audience more that an average idea. And, clients want great ideas.

    But only the audience can indicate the value of a great idea, and only then by their behavior in the marketplace. Yet, most agencies get paid the same for an average idea as they do for a great one.

These business model weaknesses have led clients to commoditize what agencies offer. This falsely assumes that all talent is equal, and that all ideas have the same leverage in the marketplace.

A stupid idea. And a sure recipe for mediocrity.

And on the agency side, these business model weaknesses breed caution and conservatism. Safety trumps innovation. Surely not the best way to get great ideas. Or to win hearts and minds in the clientís marketplace.

Make no mistake. There is not one ďmagic bulletĒ agency business model. But rather, a wide array of sub-models, each tailored to the needs of individual clients. This is mass customization of the agencyís master model.

In this kind of environment, continuing thoughtful exploration of better agency business models Ė each one unique to the needs of each individual client - is obviously called for. But unfortunately, infrequently done.

Itís Hard to Build a Firehouse When You Are Always Putting Out Fires

The good news is that today many agencies are busier than they have been since the late Ď90s. With urgent new client projects being started each day. And agency cash registers ringing again.

Against this seemingly happy backdrop, thoughtful agency leaders understand that things arenít working the way they should. But, they are almost overwhelmingly engrossed in urgent day-to-day issues. About clients. About new business. About people. About their product. About money.

When life is like this, it is very difficult to focus on the strategic issues of the agencyís business model. As a result, serious business model thinking gets pushed to tomorrow. And then tomorrow, it gets pushed back again. And when it does get done, it takes on a patch-work quality. This is clearly a case of the urgent continually preempting the important.

The gut issue is that while agency leadership is busy minding the urgent of today, no one is minding the importance of tomorrow!

To be successful in this changed marketplace, agencies need to pay as much attention to their business model as they do to their clients. But few are organized in a way to make this happen.

This puts them on a road to limbo. Or worse yet, slow death. Slowly, the agency loses its competitive strength. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it loses its share of the client spend. And slowly too, it loses its spirit. Not a happy picture.

The sad fact is that if the business model isnít right, nothing else works well.

So, Howís the Business Model Going to Get Fixed?

First, a couple of definitions:

  1. A successful business model commands a premium in its marketplace and meets the psychic and financial needs of the agency principals, staff and owners.

  2. Business management includes the establishment and maintenance of a successful business model.

In smaller, less structured agencies and similar organizations, the founder or principal owner often holds the business management portfolio. This is natural. Someone has to create the initial business model. And someone has to make sure the business is soundly run.

But, as a firm grows, it is in everyoneís interest for the key players to focus more intently on their specific skill sets, particularly as their firm encounters challenges from larger, more competent and more sophisticated competitors.

Enter the Business Manager

This is a new role. It needs to be thought of in a new way. It is essentially entrepreneurial. It is intense. And it is highly passionate.

This is not just the trusted accountant, who can be loyal and knowledgeable, but not particularly inspired. It is not a senior account person who does this in his spare time. Nor is it the leader of the agency who does this in addition to her countless other duties.

The primary focus of the business manager is the business. And, he is a full fledged member of agency leadership. With the same credibility and strength as the leaders of the other key disciplines.

In a nutshell, the business manager is responsible for the success of the business, consistent with the core values and culture of the enterprise.

For, if the business is consistently successful, the holders of the other portfolios such as account service, creative, new business, media, planning, etc. can concentrate their entire energy on their areas of expertise. By minimizing their diversion to business issues, they can be individually and collectively more successful.

Letís Look at Those Discipline Portfolios

Within an advertising agency, or similar creative organization, there are typically four or five key management portfolios. Each contains a specific set of responsibilities. While it is not necessary that a different person carry each portfolio, the skill set differences are such that in larger organizations a separate individual usually holds each unique portfolio.

Typically, these four or five portfolio holders make up the senior management team. And, they often behave as partners, in the most traditional sense. The portfolios are:

Standard Bearer
The firmís vision and values, setting and maintaining the strategic agenda, the inspiration and rallying point for staff, and the embodiment of the firm to the outside world, with particular emphasis on business development. Standard bearers typically come from client service or creative, and in a small but growing number of cases, planning.

Client Service
The relationships with existing clients, including their retention and growth, management of all client activities, stewardship of client spending, attraction, management and development of client service talent, and participation in business development.

The quality and effectiveness of all the products of the organization (not just advertising), from conceptual through completion, attracting, managing and developing creative talent, and participation in business development.

Not all firms embrace this portfolio, but when one does, it usually represents the end customer point of view (for both the concept of the message and its means of delivery) and incorporates the strategic communications component that may include research, etc., with talent responsibilities as well as participation in business development.

Business Management
This is the newest discrete portfolio. The business manager is responsible for the business model. And drives changes to fit market conditions. Essentially, this portfolio embraces everything necessary to make the business successful, except the functions described above.

Just What Does the Business Management Portfolio Contain?

No two agencies have the same business management portfolio. But, typically the business management portfolio can contain the following:

  • Development and maintenance of the business model
  • Strategic planning
  • Corporate governance
  • Budgeting
  • Finance and accounting
  • Merger and acquisition
  • HR, talent attraction, upgrade and retention
  • HR, including benefits, support staffing
  • Facilities and support services
  • Legal
  • Information systems and technology
  • Insurance
  • Media (sometimes Ė particularly when it is outsourced)
  • Operations (sometimes including traffic and production)
  • Business relations with clients (specifically agreements, compensation and stewardship)
  • Business relations with suppliers and media
  • Business relations with partnering organizations
  • Subsidiary organizations (studios, web shops, PR firms, etc.)

In addition, and in many respects much more important, a well-developed business management portfolio includes establishing and maintaining the framework for the interactions and deliberations between the other portfolio holders. For example, the agendas and schedules for the firmís management boards, committees, etc. are usually set within this portfolio.

At a higher level, a strong business management function provides continual consultative and collaborative services to the leaders of the other functions. The other portfolio holders rely heavily on the business management portfolio holder as a trusted business advisor. The mind set is to build the mutual trust between business management and the other portfolios to a level whereby each can focus most intently on her area of expertise.

The most effective holders of the business management portfolio are extremely powerful. But that power is not granted by special position or authority, but rather voluntarily ceded by the holders of the other portfolios. When this level of mutual respect and trust exists, the firm can then achieve its maximum effectiveness and competitiveness.

What Does It Cost?

Obviously, a senior management person of this caliber is not inexpensive. And, it is easy to view such a position as a luxury. Yet, business management done well is probably one of the greatest bargains in the agency business. A good business manager brings focus, efficiency and effectiveness to a bunch of largely independent functions that if left alone easily fall out of sync, to the detriment of the entire agency. Not to mention the clients.

In short, a good business manager way more that pays for himself.

A Quote

Some years ago when Fallon won the first of its several Agency of the Year awards, Advertising Age asked Pat Fallon what was the most important factor in the agencyís success. Without hesitating an instant, he replied that it was including Irv Fish as the partner responsible for business management from day one. He stated that without that, the other partners could never have focused on what they needed to do to achieve the award.

  "The magnitude and urgency of agency change isnít evolutionary Ė itís transformational.Ē Steve Heyer, former president of Coca-Cola  
Itís hard to build a firehouse when you are always putting out fires
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