Destroying the blame game, one sorry misconception at a time.
I had been asked to observe an agency at work, as part of a broader project to diagnose issues on both sides of the table that were hindering creative ideas getting to market.
A conference call was nearing its end — one of many involved in the comically complex business of making a single, 30-second piece of film. The presentation of concept number four had just concluded, and it felt like the project was turning into a classic exercise in barrel scraping.
The CMO gathered himself for his closing remarks. “It seems that you’re just…” A pause. “…A very bad agency. Yes, a very bad agency.”
For its part, the agency seemed to take this on the chin. The Business Director apologised, promised to put things right, and retired with her team for a post-mortem (which apparently lasted for five bottles of wine).
As the night went on, the group experienced a mix of blame and shame. Their discussion centred on how to navigate through the choppy waters of the next few weeks. Other than by way of general negativity, serious attention wasn’t paid to the fact that the agency was failing to navigate the client’s complex matrix management structure, to address the self-defeating political games that the markets were playing, or to challenge the CMO’s mysterious and ever-changing goalposts. Instead, the discussion centred on how the agency should be striving to keep the CMO and his entire stakeholder group happy, despite the fact that they were all on entirely different pages.
For his part, the CMO didn’t acknowledge the issues on his side of the fence. And he didn’t attempt to understand the agency’s position — for instance, by asking why morale had collapsed, or why the same team that was capable of creating exciting, pitch-winning work was now churning out will-this-do? concepts. Instead, he seemed to be busy being frustrated that the vision for the campaign he had in his head wasn’t turning into reality, and blaming the agency for this.
Separate rooms, separate realities. As it picked over the bones of another failed concept, the agency felt disparaged — and also, as a service business dependent on its clients for survival, exposed. As he chewed over another disappointing agency presentation, the CMO felt disillusioned — and also, as a client being judged partly on the success of his creative partners, exposed.
Every year, too many creative and consultancy projects play out like this. Perhaps not with the client directly accusing the agency of being ‘very bad’, but with blame, shame and frustration nonetheless simmering under the hood.
When such situations occur, it’s a fair bet that at some point everyone involved will roll their eyes to the sky and ask, with a bitter laugh, a variation of a rhetorical question: ‘is it me?’. Over the last few years, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard it.
It might be a joke or a cry for help, but it spectacularly misses the point.
The answer to the question is simple: yes, it is you. With very few exceptions, you are always a significant player in the problems you experience.
Read the start of this article again with that in mind. Everybody involved in the problematic situation above was a significant contributor to it, but would have rather crawled over hot coals than acknowledge this fact.
To be clear, this isn’t about any one person being better than another. We’re all human — and we mess up even the best of intentions with our imperfections. As odd as it may sound, understanding that you are the issue behind your issues is about the most empowering position you can take. Accept it, and you’ll soon start to see new solutions emerge.
At one level, that’s all you need to know. The main purpose of this two-part series is simply to keep pointing to that insight in a range of different contexts where experience suggests accountability often gets wrongly devolved.
For anyone interested in a greater level of detail on this specific issue, the answer is that the relative levels of accountability in failing client/agency relationships boil down to specific behaviours. Good partners will seek to self-diagnose and address these on an ongoing basis. Bad ones won’t — but will probably suffer the consequences of some or all of them.
Behind every failing agency there is a failing client, and vice versa. The relationship is symbiotic.
What follows isn’t by any means an exhaustive list of bad behaviours and their presenting symptoms, but I hope that it will prompt some useful insights.
Clients asking ‘is it me?’
Yes, it is you, if:
You passively rather than actively manage the process of creative decision-making. Through operational or political expediency, you award more than four stakeholders a critical role in creative evaluation. You allow your decision-making processes to be compromised by operational or structural constraints. You continually revert back to the data, rather than using it as a jumping-off point for a unique agenda that you define, own and drive. This matters because there ends up being no commonly agreed standard which can be used to drive and objectively appraise mould-breaking work.
You encourage the agency to spend more time on presentation than conversation. You focus your energies on narrative content more than creative content. You allow every meeting to orbit around PowerPoint. Your meetings have the atmosphere of a town council planning session rather than an engaging flow of ideas amongst equals. Your feedback is didactic rather than discursive. This matters because prioritising a process which is managerial rather than generative does not play to the strengths of your agency as a creative partner.
You can’t read your own briefs and in all good conscience say: ‘I’d know what to do with that’. You spend far less time on problem definition than managing the agency process and the politics it involves. You have half an idea in your mind about what it is you’re trying to create, but you’ve not properly worked it through, let alone communicated it to anyone else. Your objectives aren’t clear, measurable and communicable. Your measures of success tend towards the Kafkaesque — ‘we’ll know what we like when we see it’. This matters because creative relationships require clear parameters within which to function.
You don’t sufficiently isolate the creative process from broader business pressures. You haven’t internalised the fact that creative projects often involve visible failures on the road to success. You allow those projects to draw unnecessary fire because it suits your purposes elsewhere. The political capital you’re expending on other matters means that you unreasonably expect your agency to manage the politics in your business. This matters because creative ideas are fragile in the early days, and require protection and nurture from those with a mandate to do so.
You don’t pay, or play, fairly. You expect to receive outstanding work without understanding that the investment required to create it has to be commercially viable for your agency. You let Procurement agendas run amok, and don’t account for the fact that Procurement often has limited marketing domain knowledge. You mismanage scope creep. You fail to proactively engage the agency in conversation about how the relationship is going, and what more you and your team can be doing to support it. This matters because healthy working relationships are equitable working relationships.
You haven’t spent any meaningful time examining your and your colleagues’ roles as clients from the perspective of those working with you.
Agencies asking ‘is it me?’
Yes, it is you, if:
You are under the delusion that creative and commercial agendas are mutually exclusive. You envision your agency as a creative champion, but you haven’t embedded in your culture the fact that your real role is, in David Ogilvy’s words, to ‘sell or else’. You mistake preciousness for creative championship. You feel that you have the right to be precious without gathering sufficient data to endorse the commercial validity of your ideas. You don’t spend sufficient time understanding the art and science of howgood ideas sell. This matters because agency and client priorities will not be sufficiently aligned.
You haven’t codified the nature of the relationships you’d like to have with your clients. You’ve never mapped out the ideal arc of a client relationship from onboarding to exit. You haven’t identified what you’d like to achieve with every client who comes in through the door, and how this achievement sets you apart from other agencies. You haven’t understood that your projects are a tiny percentage of the workload that your clients have to manage every day. You focus on account management and process development at the expense of the things you’re really being paid for (mostly creative excellence and fun — whatever anyone says). You have no playbook for when things go wrong. This matters because relationships without an overarching sense of direction are more readily subject to existential threat.
You haven’t the emotional maturity to navigate the difficult path between agreeing with everything the client says and hitting the nuclear button. You can’t recognise the subtle but vital difference between necessary compromise and death by 1,000 cuts. You fear the ‘zone of uncomfortable conversations’, and would rather do anything than go there as frequently as circumstances sometimes dictate is necessary. You play nicely, taking the beatings, until one day you flip out, and in the process lose not only the opportunity to identify and resolve problems as they arise but also the respect of your client. This matters because progress is made when people get uncomfortable, provided best intentions always remain at the heart of the agenda.
Your financial governance isn’t strategic. You don’t understand the economic drivers of your business, and how they relate to the creative work you do. You have limited insight into client processes, and their implications for your commercial approach. You have limited means of recognising the financial implications of the inevitable changes to scope that happen as a creative project progresses. You don’t discuss with your clients upfront how these will be managed, and so leave your business exposed. This matters because good ideas follow money, not the other way around. Commercial compromises lead to cut corners.
Your leadership doesn’t properly empower its people. Your front-line teams fear the consequences of having difficult conversations, even if they’re the right ones. You aren’t actively investing in training to enable your people to become better managers and navigate their way through challenging situations. You don’t properly align internally, and so end up changing your managerial tune with clients as situations progress. This matters because, in the end…
You end up inadvertently mirroring the dysfunction of your clients in your agency structure and operations.
If some or all of the above describes you, or the environment in which you are working, it might be an idea to seek help. These are not easy problems to identify and resolve. This is particularly the case when they occur in combination, which they often do, and opinions start being thrown around.
The good news is that in the short term you can often help yourself by asking one simple question: “Is it me?” The interesting thing about this question is that its diagnostic usefulness is entirely driven by the spirit in which you ask it. The wrong tone is one of self-righteousness; the right tone is one of genuine inquisition. The latter can get you a long way towards new, useful answers to seemingly intractable problems.
No client/agency relationship is perfect, but the ones led by people who consistently hold mirrors up to themselves are more profitable, rewarding and resilient than those who don’t. Success starts with self-examination.