Lessons from Jazz on The Follies of Inter-Agency Collaboration
By Marek Lis, Principal
Someone has put something in the water. It’s causing our marketers to experience the very same vivid dream – that they are the conductor of a magnificent orchestra. The musicians respond to the slightest inflection of the conductor’s baton to produce the most wonderful harmonious sound. When they awake, they mistakenly interpret the meaning of this dream to signify how they should manage their advertising agencies. All agencies working in perfect unison. All obedient and disciplined. All responding to the rigid guidance of the master conductor. And this is causing devastating consequences to the work and the bottom line.
In reality, making successful advertising is a lot like making music. But it isn’t classical music. Well, not the good stuff. Creating great advertising is more like playing Jazz.
The real power of jazz is that group of musicians can come together and create art – improvised art – and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And this negotiation is the art.~ Marsalis Winton
Jazz is about taking risks. Musicians bouncing off each other around a central theme. Jazz rewards individual expression but demands selfless collaboration. When jazz is done right it swings.
Who planted this idea of inter-agency collaboration into the minds of those responsible for managing agencies and is the cause of this current bland, lifeless assault on our senses?
A bit of detective work leads us to the culprits. There was the perfect storm of the Shareholder’s Value Movement in the 1980’s and the post Enron wash-up resulting in Sarbanes-Oxley. These two forces morphed into a menacing monster and companies became obsessed with cost cutting to meet quarterly expectations and then they started to scrutinize those costs to death. Procurement were given medals and put in charge. They quickly reached the conclusion that things were a mess. Money was being wasted. Marketing couldn’t be trusted and Procurement should be controlling agency engagement so companies could optimize money. They cut costs and, kept cutting. Shareholders were very happy and, Procurement’s power grew.
Bright people in Procurement then dusted off their textbooks, jabbed their fingers at the Supply Chain Management chapters, fingering potential gains in efficiencies and they decreed, “We shall have all our agencies work together as if singing from the same hymn book. We will see a more efficient and a more productive machine if we have our agencies properly collaborate.” And, since it sounded like a good idea, everyone agreed. Agency ‘Scorecards’ were devised. Deals were struck with big Agency networks. Fee structures reflected “cost plus” calculations typically used for purchasing toilet paper and pencils. More meetings happened. Budgets for production and creative development were strangulated. Agencies grew bigger and fatter. More people became involved in the servicing of the business and less in the responsibility for ideas and execution. The industry obsessed over timesheets more than the quality of the creative output. Creativity became “corporatized”.
Procurement can have specs for office supplies, but specs are impossible in the marketing space.~ Tim Williams
I think it was Napoleon, the ex CMO of the French Republic and an early Jazz aficionado who said, “Prudence is a desirable virtue but ambition is more important” (but spoken in an accent).
Advertising messages have a kind of butterfly effect. They exponentially compound each time the message is consumed. Once you put significant dollars behind them, even the smallest differences in awareness, engagement, differentiation, propensity to buy etc. translates to enormous gains – or wastage – depending on how well you pull it off. It is so easy to get in the way of unleashing the potential of your agency partners. If you’re not careful, process can drive mediocrity. We all need to be attuned to this and on guard.
In short, big ideas equal big returns. And nothing should get in the way of delivering this. This needs to be the ambition.
The easiest thing in the world is to squeeze the agency. It’s fashionable to say how much you’ve screwed your agency. But anyone can do that. To get the most out of an agency – that’s the challenge.~ Tom Freitag Ex Nestle Global CMO
That’s all well and good you say but how does this affect collaboration? Put simple, collaboration is a reward not an entitlement. When true collaboration actually happens it is a fantastic experience. It is a reward for everyone involved who shares the unity of the vision and selflessly works towards the goal. Jazz musicians will tell you of the exhilaration of venturing into the unknown. Of experimentation and the trust and reliance on talent of the other musicians. Knowing they will deliver. Confidence in the consensus in what they create together will be greater than any one idea. It requires large doses of trust.
Forcing agencies to collaborate is built on a premise of falsehood. The very DNA of agencies is made up of competition. They competed to win the account. They compete on everything. It’s the world they know and their currency is a binary one – they have the business, they don’t. They have a job, they don’t. They get recognition, they don’t. So to think they will happily conform to working with other people they don’t respect and don’t trust is totally delusional. The culture created will be one based on placation and platitudes. It will drive an elaborate system of forgery – of merely going through the motions to give the appearance of cohesion. It takes a lot of energy to keep up these appearances – energy that should be devoted to more productive endeavors like say, creating a brilliant ad campaign. None of the best people will want to work on your business. Resentment will set it in. Your advertising will become banal and soon you will lay the blame at the agency and begin the expensive task of looking for a new one.
You might say I’m talking blasphemy. If you don’t believe me, take out some agency people for a few drinks and get them well oiled. You’ll get the truth.
Lets look at a few real world examples.
About 7 years ago, P&G introduced a “1 creative brief, 1 check” collaboration model where they placed the responsibility of collaboration back to their agency partners. It looked like they were onto something because it recognized the importance of not controlling how agencies should work and gave room for flexibility. How advertising is not a linear process but rather dependent on a multitude of variables. Ambitious as it sounds, they have now essentially scrapped that model.
When Lenovo was spun off from IBM they built an agency hub in Mumbai with much fanfare. Essentially the goal was to save costs. It failed. And so have others like it.
Ford, Bank of America and many big spenders all have created exclusive agency teams or agencies within an agency. Take a moment to think about their advertising. Now name one single, stand-out campaign all of the above have produced in the last 12 months.
Now think of some great ad campaigns. Take a look at their agency engagement models. Can you see a pattern here?
Agency management is all about chain reactions. If you get one thing out of place, the whole system goes awry. Developing great creative that gets results requires a certain type of working partnership and an acute sensitivity to artistic temperament. When you get it right, it produces wonderful music at the cash register. It can be a bit of an effort but there is a bigger and more meaningful reward at the end of the struggle.
The agency process might seem messy and unpredictable on the surface. But that’s what they said about Miles Davis.
Marek Lis is the principal of Alchemy Insights (www.alchemyinsights.com) and an engineer of creativity. His obsession is supporting the creative process with the right structures and systems so great ideas are celebrated by clients, agencies, consumers and shareholders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 646 415 8015.