If brands are going to innovate and win back consumer trust, then marketers need to call their agencies to account.

(This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written for a Marketing audience)

In my many moons in agency new-business, the most dramatic shift I saw was how marketers approached creds meetings. When assessing network agencies offering established services, you were confident. But when weighing-up emerging disciplines like creative technology, content and service design, you weren’t.

Once assured and reserved, you’d become curious and confessional. It felt like you were searching for something. So why the new disciplinary angst?

In search of innovation

Marketing’s getting harder. From Richard Robinson’s plea to break free from legacy systems to endless new challenges, no wonder innovation is smack-bang top of the agenda.

Some new solutions are great, others not so much. The issue for time-starved, budget-pressed marketers is deciding which is which.

Answering that usually starts with your agency roster. But you might not get the whole picture. For one, loose aims like ‘innovation’ don’t make for clear briefs. And as much as ‘traditional’ agencies argue that innovation begins and ends with them, you know better.

From emerging disciplines and global platforms, to university campuses and geeks in sheds, you need to cast your net wider. Expertise matters. That’s why we visit doctors, rather than Googling for diagnosis.

Even if your roster shops talk a good game on innovation, you need to be wary. From martech and digital transformation, to customer experience and organisational design, the hype machine punts a new saviour every day. However – and sit down for this – agencies don’t always tell the truth.

Beware the bullshit

When Co:definery researched marketing directors’ frustrations with agencies, almost everyone raised the same issue – over-claiming.

For every new discipline, a hundred generalists claim to be experts. Their sharp-elbowed landgrab and jazz-handed bullshit apparently drive you barmy. Especially now that being a one-stop shop is less credible than ever.

Agencies preach their super-integrated, bleeding-edge credentials and some even believe their own ‘alternative facts’. But that doesn’t make them true. And that cliché about every problem looking like a nail when all you have is a hammer – it’s definitely a ‘thing’.

Worse still, the Global Brand Director at one of the big drinks companies told us:

“Agencies are driven by their own outcomes – getting a bigger share of the business, doing work that’s easier, more profitable, but less effective, or winning an award or three”


Cynical personal view or widespread malaise? That’s up to you. For me, agencies rarely go further than pathological optimism. But either way, if your roster’s not melting your butter, you’ll need to separate the wheat from the chat.

Looking beyond your roster  

Opening the floodgates to non-roster shops probably doesn’t fill you with joy. Not least because agencies all look the same. They quaff the Kool-Aid and mythologise their own jargon: ‘oh no’ they sneer, ‘we’re not about creative business solutions, we’re business solutions creatively’.

Agencies lack conviction as much as capability. The allure of your budget makes them giddy and unfocused. It’s hardly surprising you can’t get a Rizla between them.

But you must persevere. Ask your mates. Try an agency speed-dating event. Call an intermediary for an informal chat.

And yes, agency approaches are usually pretty crappy. Neither a generic blog post or a project nearly in your sector counts as deep expertise. But good content is out there. And great agencies ensure it finds you.

Don’t take no shit

Once the thought-leading cream has risen to the top, the fun really starts. As I mentioned, first meetings are harder when you’re in discovery mode. In the kingdom of the blind, how do you ensure you’re the one-eyed man?

Think of it like The Apprentice. Although it’s shite these days, the interview episode was always fun, when that bald bloke (Claude, is it?) tears them to shreds. So channel your inner Claude and give ’em hell.

  • Does the agency have a point of view they believe it?
  • Can they actually articulate what they do or define their market?
  • Can they contrast themselves to the competition with clarity, respect and confidence?
  • Most importantly, can they explain what’s in it for you?

You know all this. But agency smoke and mirrors can be seductive, so don’t let them take liberties.

Making innovation easier

Another practical tip for innovation is to hold back 10% of your budget. And although rosters reduce the admin burden and protect all parties, create an easy process for going off-piste.

Your Procurement colleagues can also help spot gaps and share the load. The best ones know the marketplace and smart agencies recognise them as a route in. So that’s one fewer creds meeting already. Result!

Your country needs you

There’s another reason to search harder for innovation. Agencies love working for big brands and you love hiring them. But that means SMEs can’t access agency talent. And with SMEs comprising 47% of private sector turnover*, UK plc could use the help.

So the more you free-up the big boys and girls and nurture unfamiliar specialists, the rosier the future will look – for you, your brands and the country.

Redefining risk

It’s never been more important to do new stuff. As well as winning back consumer trust, brands can play a big role in bucking the wider anti-establishment trend, not to mention promoting the more progressive, inclusive values that recent political events have threatened.

Rosters might feel like the low-risk comfort blanket of ‘hiring IBM’. But with innovation increasingly coming from beyond the big network agencies, placing all your eggs in one basket might actually be reckless.

So don’t just challenge your roster; also hunt down lesser-known specialists. And be like Claude. Give everyone hell and follow your instinct, not just the familiar path.  

(* figures from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 2016)

Image: Recapprentice