We’ve all heard the saying, or some version of it (I’ll use the G rated version here because my mom follows me…hey Mom!), that opinions are like noses, everyone’s got one. These days it seems that couldn’t be more accurate. Everywhere you look; business, politics, sports, fashion…you name it—people are expressing their opinions. And getting those opinions out to the world faster, louder, and with greater confidence seems to be just as important as insights, information, or even facts. Such is the world we live in the age of Twitter, Blogs, and the 24 hour news cycle.
Typically I’m cool with this. I accept that daily I’ll have to sift through a worldwide web of crap to sometimes get to the good stuff. Variety, diversity, and novelty are beautiful things, and I’ll take them any day over a black and white TV and a daily newspaper. So it’s rare in my daily surfing of the interwebs that I’ll ever really get riled up about any one opinion or viewpoint. I’m typically of the mindset that it’s that individual’s right to put their opinion out there, and hey, what do I know? There could be some truth in it. I’d like to think that I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt.
That’s why, when I came across one particular article from Digiday a couple of months ago entitled, “Do Agencies have a 27 year-old Client Problem?” I mentally filed it away under the “well that was pretty much crap without substance, thought, or value” portion of my brain and tried to forget about it. But this one stuck with me. Not just because I’m 26 and I wondered if I should feel fortunate, or concerned about becoming a 27 year old “client.” It was more likely because:
- The article attacked my generation. This is far from a new attack, and definitely not enough on its own to merit personal outrage. If it was, I’d be one angry (albeit still special, lazy privileged, and recognition seeking) millennial.
- The article attacked my specific line of work, Brand Management. We create important things for the world such as this.
- The article accused us brand managers of being cautious, self-serving, ineffective, and lacking an ability to understand the larger picture.
That last part, while a little tough to swallow, would be a totally fair opinion for an industry news outlet like Digiday to put out there. It might be considered newsworthy among the advertising world I think, and it would certainly be cause for concern if what they outlined was true. The problem though (and it’s kind of an important problem) is that the entire article lacks any real insight, information, or facts. The whole thing is comprised of anonymous sources, with the remainder of the article comprised of baseless conjectures. Through this approach, Digiday posits the following:
Jr. Brand Managers on the Client Side (read those that work at companies that hire agencies to help them create marketing), create problems for agencies because they are unwilling to endorse “progressive” ideas. According to Digiday, this is because “junior clients know they’re less experienced than their coworkers, and that can actually lead them to be more cautious and conservative when evaluating ideas.”
Aside from the minor detail that this position is not supported by any concrete example details or um, facts, this notion is both ignorant and ridiculous. This argument falsely assumes that younger Brand Managers either feel completely un-empowered or have a totally unrealistic view of the consequences that could come with supporting an innovative idea that could potentially fail. Not my experience, and not the experience of many other friends I have in similar “client side” brand roles. But Digiday ain’t done, no sir. They go on to explain that:
Client-side staffers are always reluctant to attach their names to risky initiatives in case they flop, and that concern is magnified for those who are relatively new to the business and to their organizations. It’s not that they don’t like what they see from agencies, but they’re just less likely to make big leaps of faith early in their careers.
First of all, that’s an awfully liberal use of the word “always.” Pretty sure making the assumption that the behavior of an entire group is “always” the same is referred to as a stereotype. I may be young, but I do know that stereotypes, while helpful to us humans to classify and simplify the world, are often quite dangerous and flawed. But never mind that. The argument is also terrible. If it were true that we Brand Managers actually like the ideas from the agency, but simply don’t have the guts to support them due to us being so green in our career, then the counterargument would be that those who are most senior are the ones who are willing to take the biggest risks. This is simply not the case. They have more to lose, often more diverse parties to answer to (e.g. shareholders), and can even be more jaded by past failures.
But wait, there’s more.
“…people typically make decisions to serve themselves and their own interests as opposed to the companies they work for. Successful organizations succeed in aligning those interests, but for a young brand manager, the fact remains that putting their neck on the line for a risky idea often has more of a potential downside than upside.”
Here they’ve got it partly right. If you’re are Brand Manager working for a company that has a hope of being successful, your personal interests should be rooted in the objectives of the company. I’d be hard pressed to find a fellow brand manager that isn’t driven to produce a campaign which drives incremental sales, equity, or ROI for their brand. This is a case where the minority example presented is far outweighed by the majority. Andy yes, putting your neck on the line for a risky idea is challenging. But the same is true for anyone, no matter their age (see above).
So we can agree that shared incentives and interests are important. We’re on to something here, and the article manages to spell out another totally valid point:
Beside the risk element, other agency execs expressed frustration that some senior clients don’t work closely enough with their junior staffers. Provided there’s a close and trusted relationship there, working with junior clients is often a better experience, they said. But if that kind of relationship doesn’t exist, those younger staffers can end up just becoming another hurdle they have to overcome to get to key decision makers.
I couldn’t agree more that close and trusted relationships are essential to fostering any successful agency client working relationship, regardless of age. Too many approvers and a junior brand manager who doesn’t feel empowered is certainly a problem.
First points on the board for Digiday. End it on a high note? Judge for yourself with this final brilliant observation:
But given the choice, most agencies say they’d still rather work with younger clients than older ones who often don’t really understand what they’re buying or why. At the very least, the younger clients understand the concepts being pitched to them. Even if they can’t find a way to justify buying them, they’re more open to new concepts and ideas than their older colleagues.
Now we’re offending everyone. The young, the old. We’re all idiots! You’ve managed to piss off both me and my boss. Well done!
After revisiting this article after my first read a few months ago, I thought I’d try to offer up a few constructive thoughts in response. I’ll be the first to admit that the young Brand Manager/Agency relationship can be fraught with problems, but it’s not because my colleagues and I are nervous idiots who lack influence within our organizations. Instead, I believe there are a few essential ingredients that that need to be in place to ensure a healthy and mutually beneficial working relationship.
Ingredients for a successful brand manager/agency relationship
- Mutual trust. That the agency has the client’s best interests in mind and is putting forth smart strategic work. That the brand manager is supportive of the agency’s ideas and shares a mutual vision to see them succeed.
- Empowerment. For the agency to bring forth innovative ideas and solutions. For the brand manager to effectively gain alignment and sell those ideas in to management.
- Autonomy. (see empowerment). For the agency and brand manager to move ideas forward without the excessive constraints of multiple approvals and reviewers.
- Guts. That both agency and brand manager have the balls to stand by their intelligence, their ideas, and their ability to articulate those ideas to their respective managements.
While certainly not easy, achieving the right mix of the above ingredients can lead to great work—no matter how old you may be.