Friday, December 23, 2005

One of the enjoyable parts of sitting down and planning a company is that you get to choose the type of company you want to create. From my perspective that means sitting down and working through the mechanics of an agency to see how the various cogs fit together to create a precision instrument.

I’ve experienced lots of different agencies now and seen different functions take the lead. Creative, technical, commercial, project and financial have all led the organisation in the examples I have seen and each espouses its own right to lead.

The one that scares me most is to be financially led. Now don’t get me wrong, all companies need to have sound financial planning and control to succeed but I have a problem with a creative agency that is led by finance. I’ve used this quote before but it was Robert Liederman who said that “A creative agency, lives and dies on its creativity”. That might sound like a bit of a so so statement, but my experience is that when finance runs a company that creativity is stifled, and in its place is a mass market, quickly produced work, which definitely makes a profit but is as creative as someone explaining basic arithmetic. To me that looks like a perfect example of diminishing returns and definitely not the reason why I entered this industry.

The logical step is therefore to lead with creativity, and it is true that most of the time, clients buy the creative work. Without excellent creative any agency is on the back foot when trying to win new business, however creatives will often have a precious view of their own work and will not be able to divorce themselves from their creative offering in the context of a client’s business requirements. You need creative, it is the corner stone of any agency offering but it needs to be tempered. There is also the point that creative doesn’t necessarily have to mean artistic, and one of the best designers I have ever seen used to have a favourite saying that “We are all creatives”. I agree with that whole heartedly.

There was a move a few years ago to move the Web offering to a technical discipline and many agencies went this way at the expense of their creative team. I don’t think that there can be any argument now, that was a short term market move that didn’t last long and is now completely superfluous. Rightly or wrongly, if someone has a web requirement, the decision to proceed with a supplier will not rest on technical alone, and perhaps there does seem to be less value placed on this within the marketplace. The sad fact does seem to be that programmers are cheap and can always be found. Genius will always be rewarded in any discipline but the web is not the area where a programmer will be able to command the same high fees as banking application development.

In some ways this is a turnaround for me, as I was involved in some of the first great web applications that were launched, but the fact remains that we were underpaid for the technical achievement we produced, and I think the perceived value to clients remains unchanged. I have however thought that there was as much creative skill involved in technical as technical skill involved in creative. I think that is what differentiates excellent agencies from simply the ones who run with the herd. It is the creative approach which is taken and the way those creative thoughts are implemented, irrespective of the discipline.

Project Management has many meanings in agencies and there was a move a few years ago to expand the role to include client management as well. I have always been of the mind that project managers should be allowed to concentrate on the delivery of the project, and timelines in the web have always been aggressive which makes this a very challenging task. It’s usually the most difficult task in an agency and so protecting project managers has real benefits to the workings of an agency.

What I mean by this is that if a project manager becomes embroiled in managing the client relationship as well, it can affect the delivery of a project. There is also a very strong argument in my mind which sees benefit in bringing a third person to the table (or back to the table) if there is an issue with the relationship throughout the project. This is why I don’t believe that Project managers and Account Managers/Directors should perform a joint role.

Let the Project Managers concentrate on delivering the project and watching timelines. This is also why I don’t believe that pricing of a project should be left to Project Managers either. My observation is that Project Managers do not have the business skills to be able to tell when pushing on price is a good thing or not, and also do not fully comprehend the effects of supply and demand on price. Another former boss of mine once said “If I’d listened to Project managers on price I would have never closed a deal” and my experience backs this up.

That’s not to say that Project Managers should not be involved in Project planning, they should, along with technical, creative, copywriting, production planning and every other department involved in the project or campaign. The difference however is that these people should be talking in terms of time and resource availability, not price. The ultimate responsibility for price and therefore profitability should rest with the Account Managers and Directors, because they have the bird’s eye view of the business. You really cannot teach someone to be able to smell the beginning of a deal and there is no substitute for that sixth sense that all good Account Directors have to tell where the price point is where a client will say ‘yes’. That can be even if the project needs to be delivered at lower day rates than the published rate card, and it can often be the soft issues in a project where the real value is found.

All this leads me to my conclusion that a successful account handling department is the core of an agency, backed up by excellent creative, and efficient project management, but led by the business goals, which means the account handlers.

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