Why it’s time to pay more for your agencies

Marketers have long needed to do more for less but there’s a commercial and moral case for investing more in agencies and improving wellbeing in the industry.

It’s a polished, media-trained world. Savvy spokespeople tell us precisely nothing beyond the party line. So when soundbite supremo Sir Martin Sorrell changes tack, it’s worth pausing for thought.

Speaking at a recent event hosted by Campaign, he argued that marketing should focus less on top-down ‘big ideas’ and be more bottom-up, like a “grassroots” political campaign.

To make that happen he said that your agencies needed to be “faster, better, more efficient – though I won’t say cheaper”.

Fair enough.

But now fast-forward two weeks. On S4 Capital’s quarterly earnings call, the punchline had changed. As reported by MAA he said S4 – aka MediaMonks – was focused on “faster, better, cheaper executions”.

From pointedly not cheaper to oh-go-on-then cheaper in a fortnight. Slip of the tongue? Semantics? Not for me. Coming from the media master himself, that’s a pretty pointed adjustment.

But either way, while you might not give a (media) monkeys, it does raise an important question. In the age of efficiency, when should you spend more on your agencies?

Pay more, get more

Obviously the TL;DR answer is that while better agencies might cost more, you’ll get better outcomes. But your colleagues in procurement would rightly request a smidgen more rigour.

So let’s unpick this a bit.

We all do better work when we’re happy and engaged, right? But happiness and engagement require investment from senior management.

The TL;DR answer is that while better agencies might cost more, you’ll get better outcomes. But your colleagues in procurement would rightly request a smidgen more rigour.

So there’s a virtuous circle. If engaged agencies deliver better outcomes, then paying them well lets them reinvest and make their team even happier, leading to… you get the idea.

Win-win, promotions and awards all round. Group hug!

Beauty’s only skin-deep

In theory, that’s all fab. Who doesn’t love a virtuous circle? But no-one tells you where they start. They just are. In practice, agency morale, momentum and output naturally ebbs and flows.

Also – newsflash! – agencies often front-load access to their sparkiest minds. So assessing their depth of expertise is crucial.

You also need to know that they can perform day in and day out. Fancy a root canal from a knackered dentist? Me neither.

The impact of the daily grind

A recent IPA study clocked agency staff turnover at 32%. And depending where you look, the industry average for sick days is between five and 12 days.

That’s really high. Think about the impact – direct and indirect – on your brand. Worried? You should be.

Metrics like this reflect just how engaged – or not – an agency team really is. Nikki Gatenby’s book, Superengaged, has loads more examples if you’re interested.

If you want consistently inventive brains on your business, then your selection criteria need to evolve.

Never mind the bollocks

Finding a truly engaged agency that justifies a premium means peering <Vincent Price voice> …into their very soul.

Or just have a quick squiz under the bonnet. Either’s good.

Ask them about purpose (like, beyond money). Ask what they hear in exit interviews. Ask about their learning and development plan.

Don’t let them fob you off with hollow bollocks (‘our people are our biggest asset’ – oh, piss off). And call-out any archaic twattery that long hours are a badge of honour.

Encourage them to give authentic answers, not just what they think you want to hear. Build a real sense of how they actually prioritise people over short-term profit.

You’re not alright, Jack

Case closed? Not quite. As Columbo would say, just one more thing – turn the spotlight on yourself too.

Let’s be honest – your behaviour is also a big factor in agency wellbeing. To paraphrase David Ogilvy, you get the agencies you deserve.

Could you do more to avoid draining the joy and motivation from the very people whose productivity your career depends on?

Whether it’s an occasional crappy briefing or unreasonable last-minute request, shit does happen – despite your best intentions. So how could your, er, foibles, be part of an honest conversation?

Your behaviour is also a big factor in agency wellbeing. To paraphrase David Ogilvy, you get the agencies you deserve.

From progressive commercials and tailored ways of working, to anticipating when both parties might need some slack, fit matters. The more you have one another’s back, the happier the marriage – and the better the outcomes.

Marketers’ duty of care

Agency leaders – Sorrell in particular – understand that efficiency is essential. But clearly a zealous pursuit of ‘cheaper’ will only ever end in a compromise in quality.

In contrast, when agencies genuinely deserve to be paid more, everybody wins.

But there’s a bigger picture here too. Hiring agencies that really care for their people leans into the defining issues of the day.

From burnout, mental health and the gender pay gap, to diversity, parental leave and the #timeTo campaign against sexual harassment, thankfully we’re finally exploring what’s okay and what is seriously not okay.

With great budget comes great responsibility. Because you have power, you also have a duty of care.

Choosing agencies on the right side of these issues will make a difference. They won’t always cost you more, but sometimes they will.

Not only will you get that investment back in spades, but you’ll also be doing your bit for a fairer, happier and healthier industry.

Robin Bonn is the founder of agency management consultancy, Co:definery.



There are 4 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Marcelo Salup 23 Nov 2018

    Efficiency is a particulary dumb goal. The goal should be effectiveness. If something doesn’t work, it really doesn’t matter how cheaply it doesn’t work. Or how fast it doesn’t work. Or with what agility it doesn’t work.

    At the heart of it is that agency can’t prove that their work actually works (except for direct response agencies) so all the speed, agility and efficiency could take an advertiser down the wrong path faster, efficiently and moving with envious agility.

    How to break the vicious cycle… agencies must invest in real R&D. Big agencies are the only big business where R&D and, for that matter, almost every department is seen as a “cost”. There is just no investment in the future.

  2. Anne Miles 24 Nov 2018

    Agree with @Marcelo Salup that effectiveness should be the goal. I’m also mixed on some of these points above and think it is meaning well to tell a story of ‘you get what you pay for’ which I agree with to some degree. But I really do think that the old agency model is dysfunctional and costing more than it should and is not the solution. We need to work differently where the poor internal process of agencies is no longer being rewarded. We need the best talent to be working on the brand’s business and not just a mass of people running a traditional pipeline with no incentive to be efficient or effective either. The focus is more on folios for many. I think that it is time brands got better from our agencies and when the industry is not delivering the focus goes to cost. Who blames the brands?!

    I am a big believer that if we change the way we work including removing so many head counts and put the most experienced people on the job it will be done for less AND be more effective. While on the client side recently I was on one meeting that had no outcome and would have given water to 8333 people! No more of that please! That’s a decent amount of content that could have been driving business.

    The mid sized brands are the most compromised of all because the standard big pipeline with buckets of people touching their work (because that’s the only way an agency works) is devaluing their delivery and results more than anyone. I did the maths on this if anyone is interested…

    As I keep banging on about – Brands deserve better.

  3. Anton Rush 27 Nov 2018

    First of all what a great piece – a breath of fresh air and Robin pointing clearly at the elephant in the room. But whether it’s virtuous circles or vicious cycles there are issues here that need to be addressed both by agencies and their clients. In a long career in marketing I have seen the good the bad and the ugly side of client/agency relationships. Needless to say there are both bad agencies and bad clients out there and both need to be reformed. However, speaking as a non client I can only encourage, hope and call for agencies to take note of some of the issues raised in this piece. Agency boards: it’s your job to make sure all the team is good, starting with the receptionist and working up to the MD. Get your house in order, don’t front up accounts with the brightest stars in your galaxy, backed up by an account team that can only muster a dim glimmer. Be rigorous with your employment policy, only take the best, and please not just the best you can afford. The agencies that field a crack squad, where all players shine, get noticed and retained. There’s a standout agency in Bristol that makes it a point to grab designers with ‘firsts’ straight out of college and that foresight shows in their creative output, which is challenging, fun and profitable for the client. That grass roots policy has made the agency a go to place for those looking for jobs and for clients with interesting projects – need I say more?

  4. Lesley Donnelly 28 Nov 2018

    This article is just wrong and Marketing Week should stop giving space to the same old ‘agencies need to be paid more to do a good job’ debate. No one will argue against the fact that working conditions need to improve for both agencies and brand marketers. However, how to fix this is complex and involves both agencies and brands fundamentally changing how they work within a new ecosystem.
    The article picks fault with Martin Sorrell’s start-up tag line of ‘Faster, better, cheaper’ as being a bad thing.
    The article states: “… clearly a zealous pursuit of ‘cheaper’ will only ever end in a compromise in quality” – which is complete balderdash. Let’s use our copywriting heritage here, what is the entomology of cheaper? It’s from the Old English – a ‘good bargain’ which has a whole lot more positive ring about it.
    And there are two modern dictionary definitions of cheap –
    1. Low in price especially in relation to similar items and services, keenly priced, competitive and affordable
    2. Of little worth because achieved in a discreditable way requiring little effort; deserving contempt.
    Cheap is interpreted by many in the industry as version two – something deserving contempt.
    However, option one says that cheaper can be defined as affordable and that is where brands are focusing in times of unpredictability but many agencies are not designed to be affordable or fast or constantly innovating (better).
    The world has changed but many in positions of power are unwilling to upend the existing way of working – a model that was designed 100 years ago. That is why it is not working any more – not because brands or procurement or anyone else has got it in for agencies. Some are waiting for ‘the new agency model’ – well you will be waiting a long time for that bus, there will not be one solution because every client is different and new ways of working start by focusing on delivering value to clients, not figuring out the company organisation chart.
    To be faster, better and cheaper agencies and brands need to deliver more value with less work, and less work means less stressed staff who have clearer heads and enjoy their jobs.
    This is not a marketing problem, it is an organisation design evolution and every brand and agency is capable of changing to achieve the impossible – but they need to stop blaming each other. This is a system problem, not a people problem.
    Oh, and what’s on my home page?


    Neon Nelly works with brands and marketing services companies to adapt their ways of working to grow in a complex world.

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