All Agencies, Big and Small

Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

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It’s the time of year when the agency holding companies officially put the previous financial year to bed, and the industry media compile their annual agency rankings. As a long-time veteran of the agency business, what strikes me every year is the way the descriptions of agencies have changed over the years – and this is true for both large and small agencies.

A scroll through the rankings – or indeed, an agency’s website – reveals prominent mentions of size (in terms of billings) and awards, as if size and awards are the best indicator of quality or fit for a client. What happened to pride of work? I suspect much of this is driven by the holding company model – holding companies, after all, are about maximizing the value of their portfolio of companies.

My own career has taken me through the doorways and hallways of agencies of all sizes, from largest-in-the-world and on down to the boutique agency that I now lead. If I had to distill down what I’ve learned about the pros and cons of big and small, I’d point to these five truths:

  • There’s a place for big, and there’s a sweet spot for small.  Big agencies do a great job with big clients. They’re structured to serve the broad needs of the multinationals that aren’t particularly price sensitive. But as the big agencies have grown bigger, and their cost structures size them out of certain assignments, there has been a clearer bifurcation of the market, delineating a real sweet spot for small agencies – not just in terms of company size or budget, but in terms of the type of senior-level talent and attention that really lives the client’s business in a way that a big agency can’t match.
  • To get to the soul of an agency, ask them to describe it.  Big agencies are proud of their size, and that tends to be the fallback description, along with awards. But most clients with whom I’ve worked over the years are more interested in what we’ve done for them, rather than the accolades we’ve received or the billings we’ve racked up. Small agencies, however, because they can’t fall back on size, tend to describe the work they do, and the results they’ve delivered for clients.
  • Big agencies are like accounting firms; small agencies are like investment firms. Every business need to generate a certain return to exist, but the big agencies for which I’ve worked have been like accounting firms, driven by the numbers rather than by delivering good work. Small agencies, on the other hand, are like investment firms, with the investment in this case being the clients and the people. Since there’s more at stake in a client relationship for a small agency, they tend to over-index on client service and the focus on results.
  • Big agencies give you access to talent; small agencies give you a talented team. True, big agencies have a deeper bench of talent across the network, which, of course, comes with a cost. Clients can tap into and out of this talent based on need. Small agencies, on the other hand, provide access to a talented team on a full-time basis. There can be a greater personal and professional integration between agency and client teams, with both focused on delivering great results.
  • Big agencies will sell you what they have; small agencies will sell you what you need. It stands to reason: If you have a lemonade stand, you’ll sell lemonade. In the same way, big agency employees are trained to sell what the agency offers, sometimes trying to fit the proverbial square peg in the round hole. They want to keep the revenue within their four walls. Small agencies, however, typically take a best-of-breed approach, and assemble the resources appropriate to the client need, agnostic of the source.

It’s a big world filled with big and small agencies and big and small clients. At the end of the day, an agency is best judged not by its size, but by the size of its ideas and the size of the results it can deliver for clients.

New Pros Meet Old Pros

As we get ready to welcome new summer interns and new pros into the workplace, the advice in this Ad Age article penned by one of our agency principals is worth reading again.

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From the Classroom to the Office: Where Expectation Meets Reality

What Agencies and Marketers Can Learn from Young Professionals

By . Published on August 31, 2016

Recently I had the opportunity to query some young professionals who are about a year into their careers, asking them about their perceptions and expectations as they approached graduation and after they entered the communications and marketing professions.

These young pros — all now in agency settings, both big and small and from all regions of the country — made some surprising comments about the transition from the classroom to the office. Their comments may be hiding some insight into the way that universities and employers can do a better job of preparing and onboarding these new professionals.

Overall, young pros didn’t seem to fully understand what was waiting for them in the professional world — work traits, managerial expectations and the actual type of work — aspects of the job that those of us in the field for a few years or more take for granted. Their comments tended to center around three areas:

1. Pace of the job. Not surprisingly, the majority of the new pros remarked about how stressful the job is. Several students said they didn’t expect the pace of the job to be so “incredibly fast,” and how “you have to shift gears frequently and in different directions.” One remarked, “We thought we worked hard when we were in college, but it’s nothing compared to what we have to do in the real world.” Another noted the difficulty in balancing multiple clients along with the need to constantly prioritize and re-prioritize.

2. Expectations of quality. Young pros said they weren’t prepared for the level of quality required in an agency setting. “I’ve really learned the importance of the term ‘client-ready.’ For example, while you’re in school, you can get a few things wrong and still get an A or a B, but at the agency, when you’re going to present something to a client, every detail must be perfect.” They also were surprised by the variety of writing styles required for different clients and different situations. “I thought I was a really good writer coming out of school, but I realize that my writing style was great for doing college assignments but not particularly well suited for the real world.”

What lessons can we learn from these comments?

First, agencies, corporate communications departments and universities should consider closer partnerships. Together, we can work to bridge the divide between what students believe their future professional career holds and the hard and soft skills needed to succeed. For example, we know of one local agency that recently accepted a marketing professor as a summer intern, giving him current on-the-job experience to take back to the classroom.

Second, agencies and corporate departments should ensure their orientation programs focus not just on the skills of the profession, but also on how to juggle multiple clients, priorities and — importantly — personalities. Our agency, for example, takes on a pro bono project during each intern period, guiding interns through the account management process in a way that would not be possible with an ongoing account.

And finally, agencies and corporate departments should take another look at their intern programs, and see if there are ways to make them more valuable. Nearly every student agreed on the importance of at least one internship before getting a first job, but many said they found internships to be siloed, gaining experience in only one or two aspects of the business instead of a more rounded experience through exposure across the organization.

The maturity and drive to succeed of new grads entering the profession is encouraging. Now it’s up to those of us in the workplace to guide their transition and growth.


One for the Ages

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Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

Marketing is a young man’s game. Or so we’ve heard. We’ve also heard, “With age comes wisdom.” How to balance these divergent points of view?

Maybe the answer is in the question: It requires balance. As a society – and even as a profession – we’re quick to dismiss “older” workers. They’re not as fast. They’re out of touch with new technologies. They don’t present the image we want to portray.

And then someone comes along who not only proves us wrong, but blows these perceptions completely out of the water. Meet John Goodenough, recently profiled in the New York Times Sunday Review. His surname is a bit of a misnomer. He’s beyond “good enough.”

The batteries that power our laptops, phones, and even electric vehicles? He invented the technology. And he just filed a patent on a new kind of battery that has the potential to revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-powered vehicles. Oh, and did I mention that he’s 94?

The story of Mr. Goodenough should give us pause as an industry to re-consider our biases against middle-aged or older workers. It seems there are a few factors that stand out that suggest why this group of professionals can contribute in a way that may be different from young pros. Consider:

  • Knowledge is cumulative. We pick up much of our early professional learning in college, and then integrate that with real-world experience as we begin our careers. Our minds begin absorbing knowledge, but as we venture farther out into the world, our life experiences add to our knowledge, giving us a wider and deeper level of information on which to draw.
  • They think about things longer. Maybe the perception that middle-aged workers don’t move as fast as younger workers is a good thing. There’s more patience, and less of a rush to judgment. We think about things for greater periods of time, and we put things down and pick them up later, letting our minds work out potential solutions to problems or challenges, rather than running with the first answer. (Maybe that’s why we rarely see a 25-year-old judge?)
  • There’s an openness to new ideas.  As we gain more experience, our narrow vision slowly begins to widen, and we allow ourselves to take in convergent points of view and new ideas. It’s the natural course of evolution, but rather than a physical evolution, it’s a cognitive evolution.

Or maybe, as Mr. Goodenough posited, the real reason may be entirely different. In his own words: “You no longer worry about keeping your job.”

At the end of the day, a balanced workplace – with different generations bringing different experiences that lead to different ideas – should be the end game of what was typically thought of as the young man’s game. Are you game?







Don’t Say Goodbye to a Good Idea

Nolan Gerard Funk - Honestly Sincere

Rob Martin, Agency Principal

Broadway shows such as Hamilton often generate plenty of publicity outside the theater, but 57 years ago this month one new Broadway show – Bye Bye Birdie – featured a publicity stunt as the core of its plot.  The show opens with news that a famous rock star, an Elvis-like character, will soon be drafted into the U.S. Army.  When his agent arranges for this musician to deliver “One Last Kiss” to a teenage girl from a small town in the Midwest, life in that town turns upside down.  Applying current p.r. and marketing knowledge to this fictitious idea, I’m wondering:  Was this a good idea?  Would it still work in today’s world?  And what would have to change?

Actually, I think the stunt at the center of Bye Bye Birdie was a pretty good idea, maybe even a little ahead of its time.  It was certainly a big-scale idea for that particular era in American history.  And even though the publicity stunt was derailed in the show and never fully executed, it had several elements that should have worked in its favor:

  • Celebrity: The character, Conrad Birdie, was presented as one of the top musical acts of the day, with celebrity status at the level of rock-and-roll stars such as Elvis Presley or The Beatles.
  • Audience: A well-defined target audience of teenage girls was spot on for this particular idea.
  • Visual: The concept for the stunt created media-worthy visuals in the form of a photo opp as well as a live TV event.
  • Reach: The television program selected for the event – The Ed Sullivan Show – was one of the top-rated entertainment programs of its day, with an audience that was about five times larger than the following for The Voice today.
  • Measurement: A key business metric was built into this concept, with record sales from a soon-to-be-released single called “One Last Kiss” as the primary indicator of success.

The other interesting thing about the Bye Bye Birdie idea is that it took a larger-than-life image – that of a major rock star – and delivered it through a smaller-scale execution, involving one unknown girl in a small town in Ohio.

Would the same idea work today?  It might.  But there would need to be a few changes.

First, we need to engage a lot more people through social media and other tactical components.  I’d like to see a competition or build-up in advance of this event that allows every fan to vie for the chance to be selected.

Next, we would probably need a much more prominent location for the event than a single TV show, based on differences in media, viewership and the way entertainment is delivered to the public.  How about The Grammys?  Or maybe a live event in Times Square?

Another consideration is which celebrity would merit this level of attention in 2017.  Beyoncé?  Ed Sheeran?  Katy Perry?  Justin Timberlake?  I’ll leave that to you to decide.

Today, music fans follow celebrities mostly in a digital world, not a physical one.  The era of Conrad Birdie may be behind us, but we might still spark a few good ideas by examining his public relations success on the stage.



Good P.R.? Spread It Around!


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Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

If you’re not fortunate enough to live in a market served by In-N-Out Burger, you’re missing out on not only some of the best fast food around, but also a front seat to some of the most fervent and loyal customers of any brand. In the past few weeks alone, the chain has been in the news for the positive relationship that grandparents built with their granddaughter through weekly photos at the restaurant, and for a California couple who held their wedding reception at an In-N-Out location. After all, nothing sets a couple on the road to wedded bliss like a double-double and animal fries!

You can’t buy p.r. like this. But can you foster it? Yes, but it requires that a brand be quick on the uptake, and also display a deft touch. Looking at brands that do this right, we see a few commonalities:

  • Embrace it. It’s great to celebrate when this type of user-generated content goes viral, but go beyond – participate in it. Embed it on your brand’s website for a period. Engage with the participants to bolster the good feelings, and find a way to enlist them as brand ambassadors.
  • Sread it around. While a brand doesn’t want to appear as if it’s taking over the user-generated content, you can make sure your influencers – both external and internal – know about it. Encourage them to share it with their networks as a way to spread the message organically.
  • Build on it. What else can you do to put a halo around your brand while interest is heightened? Create a hashtag around it as way to invite others to participate in the fun. In the case of the wedding, create a “wedding package” so others can follow in the bride-and-groom’s footsteps, or hold a contest to find other newlyweds looking for an unusual reception venue.

As marketers, we tend to lean in where we have control. But if you loosen the reins a bit when others control the message, in a positive way that engages a broader audience, the results can be a viral ride that reflects well on your brand.

Disclaimer:  Our firm has done work with In-N-Out Burger.


A Few Words to End the Week


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Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

The current issue of Fortune includes a terrific book excerpt that describes the art and science that leads an individual to breakthrough ideas. From personal experience, I’ve always valued the structured brainstorm or ideation session in which group-think builds and shapes ideas. But I don’t think I’ve ever left one of those sessions knowing that we’ve hit on the creative answer that we were seeking. Inevitably that comes later, and it comes through the process described in this new book, “The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.”

In brief, the book describes how you can get in your “genius mode,” and – not surprisingly to me – “one way is to sleep on it.” Throughout my career, I’ve found that some “alone time” – before or after a group brainstorm – is where the ideas really start to come together. Another piece of advice from the book when you’re facing a creative challenge? Take a walk. These activities or periods of time give your brain the space to focus, and to wander, letting your mind make connections among the knowledge you’ve built up over the years.

A few other bits that I’ve learned over the years:

  • Time isn’t just a luxury. Our industry is fast-paced, and carving out time to think shouldn’t be something that we think of as a luxury. Taking a walk isn’t necessarily idle time. It’s time to step away from whatever is on your desk – or whatever is distracting you on your phone – and letting your mind do its best work.
  • Read, read, read. I’ve counseled junior staff to follow their clients’ industries, as well as their own industries, whether in print, on air, or online. Great ideas happen when we connect what seem like disparate thoughts or pieces or information. So fill your mind with all sorts of information – whatever takes your fancy. At some point, all that knowledge will be used to make connections that lead to a collection of ideas, or even to that single breakthrough idea.
  • Don’t lose the idea! As the ideas percolate in your head – especially in that down time before you fall asleep – it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ll remember them in the morning. I’ve thought the same thing, only to wake up in the morning and ask myself, “What was that killer idea I had last night?!” Now I keep a pad and pen by my bedside. I’ve also called and left myself a voicemail when I’ve been out on a jog, or sent myself an email to make sure I have some notes on my thinking.

Now, how was I going to end this piece? I know I had a great idea … Oh yeah – when your day is done, sleep on some of these ideas.


A Few Words to End the Week

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Larry A. Meltzer, Agency Principal

Two events recently brought the world of direct selling back into the news:  The eponymous pink mansion in Dallas owned by beauty mogul Mary Kay was razed to make way for new development, and the Wall Street Journal published a feature on how Avon plans to revitalize the company.

While the direct selling model seems almost quaint today, in a sense it’s the same model that we use in our profession, except we have a different product and a different audience. It’s all about a personal approach to selling, whether we’re meeting in person, using digital channels, or picking up the phone. Some lament that technology has diminished the personal, relationship-based nature of our business, but I’d argue that if used appropriately, we can find a middle ground where we can leverage technology to get closer to our audience. Consider:

  • Opt for performance over convenience: It’s easy and convenient to rely on blanket technology, such as an email distribution service to send out communications in batches. But taking the time to develop individual notes personalized to the interests of the recipient will almost always deliver better results than the “spray and pray” approach. Individual emails also are less likely to get hung up by spam filters.
  • Engage even when you’re not selling: Too often, we get caught up in our own content, focused on building engagement with the brands for which we work. But it only takes a few minutes to read and comment on others’ blog posts and articles, building a stronger two-way engagement as we define and elevate ourselves as professionals.
  • Dive deeper in the tech you’re using: The major social media channels are continually tweaking their services to enable more precise targeting. If you’re using promoted tweets and sponsored posts to target audiences, try drilling down further into the demographic options. You can get down almost to street level to make sure your content is relevant to the audience.
  • Low tech can be good tech: At the end of the day, this is a business built on relationships. A few years back, I asked a colleague to check with a co-worker about the status of a project. The following day, she said she hadn’t received a reply email. The odd part about this? The two individuals worked in the same office … two doors apart! Sometimes a good old-fashioned meeting or phone call can do more to personalize an experience than any technology can ever accomplish.

The next time you see a pink Cadillac driving down the street, remember that you and the driver are taking a similar approach to the work you do!