Published March 21st, 2016
by Steven Clark

In an attempt to shore up the number of books I’ve read beyond half a Stephen King book, the Harry Potter series, and everything published by David Thorne, I’ve been spending my downtime reading the excellent From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor; the memoirs of ‘Mad Man’ Jerry Della Femina and the book that inspired the AMC series Mad Men.

In the book, Femina tells a series of anecdotes about traditional advertising agencies in the mid 20th Century, covering everything from office sex contests to what happens when you lose a multi-million dollar account overnight (everyone drinks, leaves or gets fired). It details a bygone age of intense fear, insane excess and fierce competition. I definitely regret not reading it sooner.

What terrified me most were the parts I found familiar. Even Femina’s early agency experience is near incomparable to my own. So why as I was reading did I discover descriptions of scenarios taking place in huge New York ad agencies, some on the brink of collapse, that I’d seen microcosm versions of play out in Scottish digital agencies?

Here’s a good example:

“TWA was looking for freebies –presentation of agencies’ work without paying the freight. To get the freebies they went to nervous agencies –Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample; Benton & Bowles; Ted Bates. And they were such nice guys they even let the poor bastards at Foote, Cone compete for their own account. … TWA was pretty smooth, too. They never would come out and say go out and spend $40,000 or $50,000 on a commercial. No, they would say, ‘We’d like to see some examples of your work, the work you would be doing for us.’”

Producing visuals for a pitch is inherently flawed. What you’re basically doing when you present them to a client is throwing a dart blindfolded – you might hit your target but it’s just as likely that someone will lose an eye. This is especially true for digital projects. Without delving deeper into the brief, discussing goals, learning more about the background of the client and how they operate, your designs can’t hope to come close to anything practical. They’re a huge gamble.

Pitch visuals were a bit of a sticking point with me in previous work. A few months into a new job, I’d seen a great talk where the head of a small agency in Glasgow had described their approach to pitching. They claimed they had found considerably more success in pitching the long term plan and values of the business instead of presenting half-baked visuals.

With this in mind, when I was then presented with a task to design an extensive range of pitch visuals for a potential large American client I raised concerns, particularly because we were given a competitor’s app and website mockups to examine in order to create a better alternative. Looking at their site today, it’s exactly how it was in early 2015. Chances are they’re still shopping around, likely now with two sets of free visuals instead of one.

On another occasion, the company I worked for was approached by a large well known business down in London to produce some potential campaign visuals for a winter themed campaign. Delivery dates were tight but the promise of our work on billboards in the London Underground was enough to motivate us to push forward. Within a week or two we had a few ideas and we’d completed a spec photo shoot with models and a photographer. After presenting this idea, we never heard back. A bastardised version of our idea then appeared in their next email newsletter. From what I heard, no money ever changed hands.

Mad Men

Obviously I’m not alone, most people working in creative industries today will have a story like this. Here’s how the “hot” agencies handled this situation back in Femina’s day:

“They didn’t get any response from outfits like Doyle, Dane. Or Ogilvy. Or Mary Wells. Agencies like these show possible new business what they’ve really done in the past and let it go at that. If anyone ever asked Doyle, Dane for a sample campaign, Doyle, Dane would say, ‘We don’t play that way.’ They turn out great work; they win awards every year from their fellow workers. They’re good and they know it.”

The lesson here is that doing good, high quality work is a far more valuable sales tool than some cobbled together visuals or sample work. Then, when a total chancer of a client comes knocking, looking to steal ideas or shop around, you’re not going to waste your time, money or energy chasing a non-existant opportunity.

The post became a bit of an essay so Part 2 on Account Execs will follow in a few days.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Habanero Digital blog meaning certain parts are probably weirdly self referential or talk about ongoing feuds that probably exist almost exclusively in the mind of the author.

Advertising Digital Agencies

by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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