Famous Last Words: 3 Truths About Ad Agencies
In the 1970s, I was hired to save Meredith’s Better Homes & Gardens Family Book Service. It had lost $250,000 ($1.5 million today) and my two-word order from divisional president Jack Barlass was, “Fix this.”
Four guys saved the club: Frank Vos and Peter Vane of the Vos & Reichberg Agency, Meredith controller Harold Schwartz and ringmaster Denny Hatch. You don’t turn an aircraft carrier around on a dime. It took a painful 18 months before we showed a profit.
At the time, I had never worked with an ad agency. Here’s what I learned:
1. The Agency President Brings in the Business
Ad agency presidents are dazzlers at selling. David Ogilvy, Lester Wunderman and Frank Vos would show up to deliver the pitch. Hire the agency and you are lucky to see these brilliant sweet-talkers once every six months.
Before you say “yes” to their magical spells, meet and get to know the worker bees. Among them: your account executive and the team charged with your strategic planning, budgeting, media selection, copy, design and, above all, record keeping.
Ogilvy had Drayton Bird; Wunderman had Lew Smith; Vos had Peter Vane. All three were world-class.
2. Your Agency Is Your Institutional Memory
Damn few people stay in a corporate job very long. I had nine jobs in my first 12 years in business (and was fired from five of them). When I took over the Meredith Book Clubs, I had to do reverse engineering to find out what went so terribly wrong during the prior two years.
Controller Harold Schwartz had the performance numbers locked away in the two huge IBM S/360 mainframe computers — the third-largest data processing installation on Long Island (after Grumman Aircraft and Doubleday’s Literary Guild).
Peter Vane and the Vos Agency had all the records: the promotional history of budgets, lists, samples of ads, direct mail and results. Plus the names of the list brokers, printers and lettershops who got the offers out.
I quit after two years (I was not fired from this job; Peggy and I chose not to move to Des Moines). I left a clean campsite, knowing my successor would be guided by seasoned pros at the Vos Agency and Harold Schwartz in accounting.
3. Agencies Have a Mentoring System
In the corporate world, new hires are shown to their office or cubicle, phone and computer, given keys to their desk and directions to the nearest washroom. Whereupon, they are left to figure out the corporate culture and the mechanics of how things get done. This can be a recipe for failure.
Hire an agency and you have a full organization reporting to you. Back in my day, these folks were experts at off-the-page advertising, direct mail, DRTV and public relations.
Forty years later — with the advent of digital marketing — the challenges are exponentially more complex. Website design, SEO and social media marketing all combine to create a dizzying kaleidoscope of possibilities.
To keep on top of this confluence of big data and marketing know-how, you must rely heavily on your agency. The only way an agency can survive in this tsunami of fast-changing information is to have a mentoring system from the top all the way down through the ranks to junior copywriters, analysts and summer interns.
Three organizations whose successes are built on mentoring: Procter & Gamble, the U.S. Army and ad agencies.
Takeaways to Consider
- Before firing your ad agency, be very sure it is absolutely the right move.
- When you fire your ad agency, you lose a ton of institutional history and knowledge.
- If the person who fires the agency leaves and is replaced by an outsider who must deal with a brand new agency, you are flying blind in a hurricane.