Three Spring-Cleaning Tips for Marketers — and Three More Their Agencies Could Use


Originally published in Ad Age Magazine on April 26, 2010

Get Rid of the Clutter and Dust Away the Cobwebs to Get a Fresh Start on Your Business, Your Budget and Your Future

It’s human nature, really. We all get comfortable. Predictable. Perhaps even stuck in the mud. So during the season when you clean out the garage, reorganize the linen closet, and give the entire house a thorough once-over, perhaps it’s also time to take a fresh look at how you are approaching the brands you steward on behalf of your clients.

Kill the sacred cows

OK, maybe don’t kill them. But take a good, hard look at every part of the brands you serve — every point of contact, every dollar invested and every interaction with consumers.

Identify and evaluate every part of your marketing mix from the past couple of years. Critique. Prioritize based on performance. Consider how to make every component work harder — as individual tactics, as well as part of an overall campaign.

Revisit your targeting. Are there more effective ways to define your audiences? To prioritize them? To parse them into a more meaningful, addressable or responsive audience? To set your brand up for a larger bang for the buck?

And don’t stop with communications. Dig deep into every part of the brand. Where are the gaps in the marketplace? Competitive vulnerabilities? Unmet consumer needs? What’s changed? (Or what’s about to change?) Where are the biggest opportunities? What might you do to truly drive the business forward? And what stale thinking is standing in the way of real progress?

Redefine your metrics

For almost every client in virtually every category, we have more data than we’ve ever had in the history of marketing. That said, in a world of so much information (and so little time), it’s easy for anyone to fall into analysis paralysis (or just plain information overload) — to let the webmetrics go unchecked, the sales reports go unmonitored and the research benchmarks collect cobwebs.

One of our core values is to make the complex simple. When it comes to metrics, consider what really matters: your true key-performance indicators. And don’t think of them in generic terms as “indicators of performance,” but rather, as “the biggest levers for your business and brand,” the key numbers which — if you can make them go north — will make a real difference on your bottom line.

There are a wide range of potential levers out there, varying greatly depending on your category and market position, from foot traffic to web traffic, from Facebook Fans (or now “Facebook likes”) to free-trial users, from organic search ranking to unaided or aided awareness.

It’s funny how easy it is to fall into the trap of managing your business or brand based on numbers that are no longer relevant. Discuss and define the most-important metrics, build tracking and evaluation mechanisms, and pursue optimization with reckless abandon.

Clean-sheet your budget

Pretend that you’re building the first budget ever for your brand. That’s right, start with a clean sheet of paper — and zero-base every investment that you consider. In short: Justify your budget’s existence.

Budgeting is one of the most important decisions that clients make for their brands. And frankly, it is one that is far too often a fait accompli.

Yes, there are all sorts of “tried-and-true paradigms” — percent of sales, industry norms and the like. But the reality is that we have worked on budgets ranging from 2% to 40% of total revenue — both consistent with and wildly divergent from conventional wisdom. Like anything in business, it all comes back to risk and reward.

During your spring cleaning, have the hard conversations with your clients all over again. What is the acceptable baseline for success in the current climate? Is there an appetite for risk? Would your clients rather have a high likelihood of conservative growth, or a lower likelihood of radical growth?

We apply creativity not just to planning and creation, but also to the act of budgeting itself. We create different investment platforms. We build a wide range of potential approaches. We “try them on” with financial scenarios and assumptions. To be clear, this is an exercise of equal parts science, art and common sense. And when done properly, it creates not just clearer expectations of client priorities, but marketing platforms that are connected directly to their fundamental desires (both rational and emotional alike).

In a world where change is not just a constant, but a true driver of our business, it is imperative that agencies provide the role of “constructive agitator” on behalf of our clients. This is the real value that agency partners will provide in the coming decade — challenging existing norms, providing fresh insights and platforms for growth and delivering “spring cleaning” on a continual basis — no matter the season or brand.

For Your Agency

Now that we’ve taken a fresh look at how we approach the brands that we serve on behalf of our clients — well, turnabout is fair play. As an industry, we are undoubtedly going through a point of major transition and transformation. As such, it is critical that we put a fresh set of eyes on our own processes, systems and, yes, even the fundamental role that we play for our clients.

From ‘where does it fit?’ to ‘how does it work?’

In the past few years, we have all added new functions, positions and titles. And so enter modern-day questions about agency process. Where does social media fit within the organization? To whom should it report? When it comes to conceiving campaigns, who is driving the bus? Who works with whom? Where do account planning and account service add the most value?

Further still, who is involved at what part of the process? How do you get the most thinking from the team, at the right time, without wasting valuable time and resources up front, or creating internal conflict and misalignment on the back end? Bottom line, how do we collaborate and integrate in a world with more possibilities? (And by integrate, I don’t mean we ask for a few slides from media or PR the day before the presentation to slap onto the end of the deck. I mean real, true, honest-to-goodness integration.)

The more we dig into questions like these, we’re finding that there actually isn’t any single answer. Rather, process and roles are being custom-made for each engagement, based on each client, its unique needs, and our scope of work — which makes sense, when you think about it. Given that what we really do is custom product-development work, it follows that the process and players themselves be custom.

From old titles to new roles

Congratulations. If you worked in the advertising industry a decade ago, your job today is radically different. And huzzah: As you have undoubtedly heard by now, predictions are for more change in the next five years than we have had in the past 50. Buckle up; it just might be a bumpy ride.

So, what does this mean for you and your agency? It means revisiting the roles of not just departments, but individuals. Here’s the challenge: Create the ideal model for how your shop could or should run. Evaluate the strengths of your current team. Start building a framework, process and vision for the future. Fill in your competency gaps with new staffers. And perhaps most importantly, create a culture that embraces change, regardless of department or position — an agency of curious, ambitious challengers.

Bottom line, the agencies that grow their business will be not just those who embrace change, but those who lead it, who are one step ahead of their clients (and arguably even consumers). They are passionately inquisitive. Hungry. And fearless in their quest to identify insights and opportunities that catapult their clients forward.

From vendor to partner

Put down the spring-cleaning supplies for a moment and take a look in the mirror. In your current client relationships, how often are you a vendor — and how often are you truly a partner?

Think about it. With which clients has your agency had the greatest success? Delivered the largest value and results? Built the strongest relationships? If I were a betting man, I’d say they were the clients with whom you went the deepest — in terms of the level of conversations you were having, the types of problems you were addressing, the nature of consultation you were providing and, yes, where you had the most exposure to senior management.

When it comes to being partners, agencies all talk a good game. But the reality is that being a partner takes commitment and effort. It means constantly being engaged in your clients’ business, not being afraid to ask the hard questions or rock the boat, searching far and wide for answers and giving voice to unconventional, provocative and sometimes even unpopular points of view.

By way of full disclosure, our agency’s quest for spring cleaning has happened in the midst of not just industry change, but amid our own growing pains as well. It’s messy, and equal parts scary and exciting for everyone involved.

But nevertheless, the questions are there for the asking: Where are your cobwebs? What is the clutter that is standing between your shop and bigger, better thinking for your clients? What are you doing to build your own agency of (and for) the future?