21 November 2019

Reflections from the Darkside

Having spent 18 years working in marketing ‘client side’, I can honestly say that it never crossed my mind for a single minute about working ‘agency side’. I didn’t really know anyone who had in all honesty either. It just didn’t seem to be a thing!

And this wasn’t because of any particular distaste towards agencies. I have worked alongside multiple types of agencies over the years and had plenty of positive experiences. 

But from what I could see, there were agency folk (not very commercial, often use fancy words, take us on good knees ups...) and there were client folk (more sensible, focused on data, resource spent fighting internal battles, writing long PowerPoint decks and dealing with commercial challenges).  

And that was the status quo, for me at least.  

So it is with interest that I find myself now having almost completed my first year on the ‘dark side’ (working within a branding and design agency), and able to reflect on some of my early conclusions having spent time in both camps... 

The curious questions from my ‘client side’ peers have also led me to believe that people are genuinely intrigued about how things really work on the other side of the fence.

These include:

‘Is it like Mad Men?’ (unfortunately no Don Draper…)           

‘Are creative people eccentric and precious?’ (not at all but they do look at things differently)

‘Do you write the strategy after the team have the ideas to make it look credible?’ (never)

‘Do you have to schmooze and take people out for lunch all the time?’ (I wish)

‘Do you sit around slagging off clients all day?’ (rarely)

So here they are my top 5 thoughts and surprises now I am officially sat on the ‘dark side’…

1. Chemistry makes the difference over process

Just as working with a creative agency can be the most fun part of your job when you are client side, for an agency working with great like-minded clients is also what makes agency life brilliant and fun.

Some clients you will have a natural gel and synergy with from the offset whereas others will be more challenging and require more effort. This is to be expected.

However, I am a great believer that liking the people you work with creates the right environment and level of trust/honesty to deliver the best work and the best partnership.

After all, people buy people and I am yet to see a process that is genuinely different even though it may be badged that way.   

2. Strategy is at the heart of the creative process

I cannot speak on behalf of all agencies but at Brandon we have a fairly rigorous process to adhere to before the creative team are even briefed in order to get under the skin of brands, businesses and consumers.

And even once they are briefed, the creative team do a fair bit of scoping, visualising and discussing before the colouring pens are even picked up! And we also have several check in points along the way to ensure everything is still on brief.

This has come as one of the biggest surprises for me as I must admit I was pretty cynical about this when I worked client side.

3. Agencies do not offer superior thinking to your internal team

I often felt like sometimes planners came in with beautiful presentations and phrases that would seem brilliant and so clever in the moment, but 24 hrs later in the cold light of day I would often think were overly complex and didn’t actually say anything meaningful.  

The best planners (in my humble view) seemed to effortlessly be able to cut down our 400 slide decks on ‘everything we know about the consumer and brand’ into simplified well-honed insights that added a level of freshness and made us think differently about the brief.  

Clients and agencies both have a lot of intelligent people within them. Agencies shouldn’t necessarily be an expert on your category or brand.

The benefit of an agency is to extract the depth of knowledge that already exists within a business and combine this with the benefit of fresh and naïve thinking, as well as the breadth of experience from working across different categories with similar challenges.

4. Pitching is like modern dating – a minefield

Chemistry meetings, informal chats, share your view on our category or challenge, briefs over the phone, 50 slide briefs, paid pitches, share some case studies, example briefs to consider. On it goes….

Every single time we go to meet a potential new client the requirements change, and no two clients want the same.

Pitching has probably been the steepest learning curve for me coming from a client perspective. But perhaps because it is so new, I also find it fascinating and really enjoy it.

Meeting new potential clients and getting your head into their brand, category and challenges is akin to the whirlwind honeymoon period of a relationship. ‘Will this be the one?’.

And as with any new budding relationship, the euphoria of success and the pain of failure cannot be underestimated. 

Ultimately, you have to believe that the right chemistry and the right experience will get you the right clients for you but there is rarely clear feedback on why you weren’t successful. I think as clients we are often too polite to tell agencies the truth so usually wrap it up in something generic, again akin to dating, ‘it’s not you, you are great, it’s me’.

5. Closing the empathy gap

I often read articles that talk about the widening empathy gap between businesses and consumers.

However, I believe this is also true of agencies and clients.

“why do agencies always chase on timelines?”

“why do clients never get back to me until they need something urgently?”

There is a lack of understanding within agencies about the genuine reality of internal battles that clients have to deal with everyday, particularly in big businesses where ‘alignment’ with multiple stakeholders can seem to take forever. Agencies are in reality the last people that clients have to get back to until they are required to do so.

This can be frustrating as agencies also have time pressures of their own and have to schedule everyone’s time and it is hard to keep juggling pieces as things move.

One solution for this, as far as I can see, is to make it easier for people to do more roles in both camps to see it from both sides. However, this is difficult as clients and agencies are often risk averse and it is easier to look for people who have been doing similar roles.

Personally, I think spending time in both camps helps make you more rounded professionally and able to see things more clearly from the other side.  

So next time you are looking for your next role, don’t discount a jump to the dark side!

Happy to talk more to anyone who is considering this.