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Thursday, 5 May 2011

How NOT to choose an agency: a beginner's guide

I have been fortunate over the years to have hired quite a few very able people whom I mention occasionally in these blatherings.

This is mock modesty, actually. I am bloody good at hiring them, maybe because I decided long ago that I don't want to, and can't do all the work myself - so I'd better try and find others, preferably better than me, to take it on.

One of them, whom I mentioned the other day, has left me to get paid twice as much elsewhere. Among her endearing characteristics were that she could do almost anything and that she regularly worked all night to get something done.

She handled clients, wrote copy, presented brilliantly, and did layouts on the Mac, a skill she picked up in two days just by sitting next to someone and watching them. The copywriting is the most extraordinary of these accomplishments, as her native language is not English. For six years she wrote and perfected the control mailing for our biggest client. They will regret losing her.

But she had one fatal flaw. She kept on asking me to pitch for business. I had to humour her three times before she realised what a completely stupid idea this is.

Its only benefits are the chance to study a) one of the most pointless activities in our business; b) marvel that most of the people in charge of it know next to nothing about marketing; c) wonder how people who have never studied their chosen field of activity have risen to such positions of influence.

There are many theories about b) and c) including the popular one that shit rises to the surface, but I think it is because marketing is not a profession in the way that law or medicine are - though marketing people like to kid themselves it is. As a result it is heavily populated by people who in earlier times would have been used car salesmen or confidence tricksters.

Anyhow, why are pitches a ludicrous activity besides the fact that they waste a lot of time and money better applied elsewhere? Not everything I say next is true, but almost all of it is.

1. The only people who can tell you if your ideas are good or not are the customers. They will vote with their money.

2. The people who judge the ideas submitted are not qualified to do so. Even if any had read a few marketing books (highly unlikely) or spent time getting a certificate at an Institute, they are not their customers.

3. Even if they were, what people like and what makes them reply or buy are two entirely different things. I have spent more years than I care to recall putting audiences all over the world to the test by showing them A/B split runs. Only about one person in 50 can get three right in a row.

4. Those choosing the agency are swayed by whether they like the people they meet. This matters, but has nothing to do with results.

5. The agency will go to great lengths to charm, bribe and grovel their way to the business rather than worry about what works. Their objective quite simply is "Give the clients what they want." One cynical friend who was brilliant at pitches said to me, "First I give them what they want, then try to persuade them to run what they need."

All this is prompted by an invitation to pitch from a large firm, with a list of stuff I had to read and study in order to take part.

Which brings me to the last reason why I refused immediately, muttering a handy Italian phrase to myself: Va fan culo.

I cannot spare time to work on phantom business. I have real clients paying me real money to work for them. If I take time off to try and fathom the inscrutable desires of this prospect I am robbing my clients.

I could go on about this, but it's the middle of the night.

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