Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ad Agencies Should Hire More Clients

The following was one of my columns and originally published in Ad Age on September 21, 2009.  It bears repeating.

I meet a lot of client types - advertising managers, brand and marketing people and others - who tell me that they would like to work at an ad agency.  Some of them once worked on the agency side and genuinely want to go back.  But 90% of the client-side marketing types I meet should not be at an agency.  Some are desperately out of work and are looking for any employment they can get and simply don't belong at an agency.  Others just don't have the right temperament for agency life.

But the few (10%, maybe) who actually could do well at an agency are often rejected out of hand, without even being interviewed.  Agencies of all types - general, promotion, digital/interactive, even event-marketing agencies - just will not talk to them.  Or they pay lip service to former clients or colleagues and interview them, but it goes nowhere.  When asked, agencies rarely give a cogent answer as to why they don't like to hire marketing executives.  It may be some kind of unwritten rule that has been handed down from one agency executive to another with no apparent reason.

The best rationale for not hiring brand people or marketing executives seems to be twofold.  The first is that clients, ultimately, can tell their agencies what to do.  Therefore, client types may lack the finesse that agencies require in order to negotiate through the complexities of dealing with creative.  The second is that client may not be hands-on enough within the context of creative development and don't know enough about the intricacies of managing that process.  While both comments may have some validity, agencies' unwillingness o meet and hire qualified, advertising-savvy marketing people is unfortunate.  Some, indeed, would make great agency executives.

As an ad agency recruiter, when I ask client-side candidate why they believe they can succeed at an agency, the inappropriate ones generally respond with something like, "Because I have been a client, and I know what clients need."  Wrong.  That response shows a complete lack of sensitivity or understanding of advertising agencies and the creative process.  Appropriate candidates exude passion for advertising development and have always been fully involved with agency creative people during that process; good clients do indeed know how to negotiate through the intricacies of agency life.  Often the best references for these candidates are agency creative and account people with whom they have worked.

A fabulous brand manager who was ultimately successful on the agency side once asked me, "Don't you think that in-house creatives, packaging and promotion people consider themselves to be just a creative as their agency counterparts?"  Many marketing people deal with in-house agencies and other creative people on a regular basis.

The real reason agencies are reluctant to hire marketing people is that there is an inherent fear that ex-clients will always side with the client against creative.  Truth is, a good former brand or marketing person may know how to sell work more effectively because he can frame arguments from the client's point of view.  This does not mean they will simply give in.

There is another important point to be made.  We are constantly seeing studies that show that agencies and their client lack mutual respect.  Clients accuse their agencies of not understanding their business, and, given the nature of fees, that is often true.  The client budgeting and compensation process rarely leaves enough room to allow agency account (and creative) people to really dig into their business.  Client purchasing departments have squeezed agencies to the point where all they can do is execute, leaving little or no time for the partnerships that should exist.  Agency people rarely, if ever, go on sales calls with their clients, account people don't do store checks, and few agency people ever get real client-side training (yeas ago, I worked on a cosmetics account and went through cosmetology training and learned how to apply lipstick, mascara and eye makeup).  The result is a crisis of confidence.  But hiring the right people from the corporate side can help create mutual understanding, respect and interaction.  A former client may well be able to enable an agency to do and sell better work.

The critical factor is that they have to be the right people.

When I have this discussion with senior agency people, they often point to the few public and massive failures some client types may have had on the agency side, especially at senior levels.  My response is that if those jobs had been specified correctly, the people who failed would not have been hired in the first place.  There are plenty of wonderful, non-agency executives who have succeeded at ad agencies.  Their success has been predicated upon appropriate hiring.

The key is to define the real problem and hire executives who can resolve those issues accordingly.  Could there be a period of adjustment to the agency side?  Of course.  There is a period of adjustment for every new hire.  But it's worth repeating:  The overwhelming majority of client types do not belong at an agency (just like the same number of agency people who don't belong at the client), but the few who are right could be worthwhile and productive hires.  These people should never be summarily dismissed simply because they have not worked for an agency.  Agency creative departments have often hired people with no advertising experience because they know that thinking out of the box may be the best solution.  Account management departments might consider doing the same.


  1. Super interesting, Paul. I remember having a conversation with you remarkably similar to those you describe. Interestingly, I'm one of those client-side folks who relishes the creative process.

    Great column and good insight.

  2. Hi Paul:
    I believe I am somewhat biased as I started on the agency side, went to the client side as Director of Marketing for Rolls-Royce and Bentley, and then came back, ultimately to start my own agency. I recently hired two account service personnel from the client side. My take is that clients love former clients. There is an empathy for the job that agency-only types do not understand. Most importantly, advertising is about one tenth of your overall job as a client, despite having the largest budget. I never realized that until I went to the client side. Understanding that fact and knowing what about what other stuff clients do makes you an invaluable partner.

  3. Interesting take Paul. Given that you and I have spoken about this in the past, I'd like to add some additional insights I've picked up in my efforts to swim upstream.

    I've found that there's also a perception amongst some in the agency world that someone whose career has been spent on the client side will react badly when faced with the inevitable Friday night at 8pm "Let's change the whole campaign" call.

    Although we can all tell ourselves and the agencies we're interviewing with that we'd be able to handle such a thing, there's no real proof until the event happens. That is, of course, too late and so the agencies error on the side of caution.

    Just 2¢ from the trenches. Thanks for all you do Paul!

  4. Richard: Somehow there is inherent distrust of a client's ability to adapt to an agency. That is, of course, ridiculous. It has little to do with working late, but it could be a factor. Thanks for your comment.

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