Category Archives: Advertising Agency

Top 5 Agency Tips to Keeping a Client Happy

I am very lucky to have seen the media world from various angles; working for over a decade in media sales starting with computer magazines through to digital display, affiliate and email; then spending 7 years planning and buying online media at agencies, and finally ending up where I am now, doing digital marketing contracts within client organisations.

The journey has taken me a long time, but as a result I now have some pretty good insights into why you should or shouldn’t use an agency and also what it’s like to walk in the shoes of those involved.

My main take out has been that we will all do our jobs better if we understand more about the context in which our internal and external partners work; and it is for this reason that I’ve previously summarised The Top 5 tips for Selling Media to Agencies. To continue with the theme, with a few more months experience working client side, today I give you The Top 5 Agency Tips to Keeping A Client Happy.

1)      Find out what it is they’re judged on

Each time you take on a new client, a new product or campaign within an organisation, your most important priority is to set the goalposts. There is no point working painstakingly for weeks on a campaign that builds reach and frequency if the client (or the client’s boss) is only going to ask “How many sales did we make?”.  Similarly if you are able to report on digital sales only, but don’t get to see offline or unattributed sales fluctuations you may be seriously hampering your campaign’s performance and under or over reporting the impact it has on the client’s bottom line.

And the bottom line is always the bottom line. I have yet to find a client who doesn’t end by judging their media by the financial impact it has, nomatter how much they say they want to be innovative and “go beyond the banner” and have cut through and win awards. It’s money, plain and simple.

You can make your life even easier by putting this one figure at the top of your report each day/week/month. Why make the client scroll through lines of data when the only figure their boss asks is “Are we up or down?”. Give them that figure at the top, big and bold with context (week on week, month on month, year on year), and then explain more later. Don’t make them search for it.

2)      Pro-actively send them information

I know only too well about the resource pressures within an agency environment, but

if your job is to provide the client report on Monday by 10 O’clock, DO IT!

Don’t wait till they natter, don’t think you’ve got a few hours leeway if they don’t seem to have noticed.  That time will have been set for a reason – they may have a sales or board meeting at 11 where they will be asked about the figures. If they’ve been stuck in another meeting until then, and are relying on you to have sent the data through so they can access it on the fly, do you want to be the person who makes them look stupid in front of their board?

If there are operational reasons why it’s difficult to get the data to them at that time – the ad server hasn’t updated sales, the report is bespoke and complex and can’t be done that quickly – then sit down with them and ask them what they can get away with. Many a time I have sent a client simple preliminary data (with caveats)  only to follow up later with more mature data with a full analysis. Believe me, when the report lands in their inbox your client will breathe a sigh of relief because NOMATTER WHAT IT SAYS, some data is better than radio silence.

Resource pressures allowing, try to always give them more information that the basic SLA states. If you show interest in their business and show examples of something relevant that another client has done, some media developments as a stimulus or do a bit of extra digging in competitor trends for some context, they will be nothing but happy. This point really matters when the client comes up for pitch, as you can guarantee that the other agencies will throw all sorts of innovative solutions at them to show the difference they can make,  and the last thing you want is “Well, we stopped sending you ideas as you always said No.” to be your excuse when they mark you down and you lose the pitch on innovation.

3)      Don’t insult their decisions

I’ve said this before (here) and I’ll say it again – they may have access to information that you don’t have. So…

EVEN IF THEY SEEM TO BE TOTALLY INSANE do not insult the decisions they make.

By all means ask questions about them, state (politely) why you may have done things differently and make caveats in your forecasts where you think these decisions will impact negatively on the performance metrics that you can see, but it is the height of arrogance to assume that you know their business better than them. You may know media, you may know how to get people to their website, but you are probably not seeing a whole pile of data that gives an entirely different context to performance.

An example of this is using ad server/search tool data as gospel. Recently I had to stop an agency from continually over optimising an account, reducing potential lead volumes based on AdWords data, when the data of record for the company was the Google Analytics integrated search CPA, which was much healthier and meant that rather than reducing spend/bids, they could have been a lot braver.

Had they been given access to the data? Yes.

Did they bother looking? No.

Did they send a report that criticised my decisions based on their incomplete data? Yes.

Will they remain our supplier for long? No.

4)      Find a positive in everything

Sometimes things go wrong in business and marketing. Products fail or get bad PR, messaging doesn’t create any impact, a competitor launches a spoiler. Recessions happen. Sometimes it’s the media choices, season, targeting or forecasting. Sometimes you just don’t know. But there is ALWAYS something you can learn from a campaign. Even if that thing is “We won’t do it again in that way”.

There is nothing more depressing for a client to receive (or, I imagine, an agency account manager to write) than a post-campaign report where the results have fallen far short of the forecast or target, especially if there’s no obvious explanation; but you can rescue the wreckage by highlighting ways that other clients have improved things when faced with a seemingly dismal failure. One way to change the way you put things in context is to always  to have 10% of your budget allocated to testing new things (especially in the ever changing digital world). This means that any test that fails is not seen as the end of the world, and instead a fundamental part of the development process.

If you call it a test and it fails, it’s a learning.

If you call it a plan and it fails, it’s failure.

I know which one I’d be happier to discuss with my client/boss.

5)      Tell them the “So what?”

Data. We’re all drowning in it. And the data you send to your client will be only a tiny part of the data they see each day.

Digital media’s very trackability is the reason it remains the healthiest part of the advertising market (granted, it is also a stick with which it can be beaten). The result of all this data can be inertia as we all struggle to put it into context and gain anything actionable. This is where you can make your client look like a superstar.

Here’s some online sales data. I’ve graphed it as a monthly trend. It still means nothing unless I know how it compares to 

  • other companies doing the same thing
  • seasonality expectations
  • my own company/product performance in the past
  • my forecasts and targets

Good or bad are all relative concepts, and it is your job to take your client from data driven inertia to the “So what?” – think about what it means. How different is it to what you expected – AND WHAT DO YOU RECOMMEND THEY DO ABOUT IT NOW?

Give them potential actions to take to their boss, even extreme ones to get them thinking.

Do they choose between:

  • cancel the project
  • change the creative
  • recall the product
  • change the media mix
  • add international markets
  • double the spend
  • change the landing page
  • expand the product range
  • add a phone number

For every campaign learning, there should be a recommendation that the business can do to either capitalise on it, or avoid it in the future. State these and give your client an action plan to test these new recommendations (remember, tests don’t fail, they become learnings), and then you have a process of constant testing and learn, that WILL lead to success over time.

In house or agency?

This week one of my old clients, Direct Line, announced that it was setting up an in house agency. Apart from wincing on behalf of the incumbent MediaCom (and the amazing team I worked with who ran their paid search) this is a reflection of a lot of soul searching in the marketplace – and the question that I’ve been asked a lot in the last few months, namely “Would you recommend running digital marketing in house or through an agency?” – to which I don’t think there is a perfect answer.

Agency Pros.

The biggest benefit of using an agency is the flexibility and scalability to get things done. A dedicated team of experts, learning from a larger pool who work across various markets and hence can apply learnings quickly and easily, and hopefully avoid repeating the same mistakes or re-inventing the wheel for each individual client.

In addition to this there is a reduced staff overhead and capital expenditure to service marketing campaigns and plans that may not be always on, or to the same level – and therefore would entail a constantly fluctuating need for staff and possibly office space.

Traditionally the buying power of agencies has been seen as a major benefit but this is increasingly irrelevant in a growing digital world. Yes I’m sure the clout of the big agency networks still carries weight with TV and large print publishers, but there is only so much volume an agency can guarantee to secure the best rates without locking their clients into inappropriate media choices.

Digital media runs overwhelmingly on performance based buying models, either as a CPC/CPA. Even a low CPM buy only remains justified as long as the “effective CPA” formula works out at the back end. This means that the perceived value of the media is out of the hands of the media owner, and the old sales negotiation model is defunct.

The increasing combinations of media, client and social interaction data that enables Real Time Bidding mean that in theory any agency, technology or platform partner can and does engage in arbitrage through buying cheap network and exchange inventory, adding value with layers of data and selling on to the advertiser at whatever they can get away with.

As long as the client gets the customers they want at a rate that makes sense for their profit margins, this may seem fair, but when part of the cost they pay is driven by their own data, one could very rightly say that they should not be paying this premium, except maybe for the usage of the technology that enables it.

The elephant in the room

The agency world is a scary place to be right now. Recession has brought increasing pressure on client margins, meaning marketers and procurement departments are constantly picking away at agency fees – demanding more for the same fees, or indeed lower; with the constant threat of pitches used to keep the agency in line.

Agency fees are being pushed lower through supply and demand, and they race to economise and automate to make the figures add up. Meanwhile, (like the proverbial swan on the water with madly flapping legs) operational staff are running just to keep still, keeping abreast of all the changes in digital that mean entire tracking and attribution models are rewritten each year; new media, channels and delivery mechanisms are added monthly and still the ROI machine says:

MORE MORE MORE!

CHEAPER CHEAPER CHEAPER!

The nature of a market reducing fees and profitability even while it becomes more complicated and labour intensive is guaranteed to create pain for the people on the front line. It undermines agencies’ ability to invest in systems and procedures that would enable efficiencies, and inevitably means that mistakes are made, clients don’t get what they need and eventually the dreaded pitch becomes reality after all.

So the account goes to another agency, and the process begins again.

It’s painful, it’s bad business for both parties but it’s almost impossible to stop. Without a wholesale re-think of agency fees, values and expectations the impact of digital has been to make it harder to service clients profitably, just at a time when they need the most expertise. Not surprising then that they’re thinking about setting up their own talent pool.

In House Pros.

Outsourcing, silos and business change: The marketing world has always had to adapt as the consumer changes, and now that process is faster than ever. The ways that the consumer has changed now impacts more than just how you market to them. It’s how you sell, how you transact, your channel to market and how you follow up, it’s customer service, complaints, reviews and approval and advocacy and sharing. Every touchpoint is now possible across a variety of devices – and worse – bad experiences can be shared to the point of going viral worldwide in minutes, potentially destroying years of product development and business planning (Dasani in the UK, anyone?) 

What this means is that the entire business often needs to change, sometimes radically, to adapt to consumer preferences. How fundamental this change needs to be can be masked if your comms are handled by external partners, plus also de-skilling your own internal staff.

Multiple teams within an agency, multiple agencies dealing with multiple product, marketing and discipline teams within a client means that the helicopter view that says “Whoa, we really need to change this!” gets missed, and each part of the machine keeps working to its own disparate aims without a central unifying mission or understanding.

Of course this can happen within an organisation too, it is not restricted to services that are outsourced, but you can guarantee that more disparate entities involved in something, the more difficult it is to integrate.

Data, data and more data: In a perfect world all marketers would have robust MI data that truly reflects the impact of their activities. By this I mean more than just to initial sale, but attrition and lifetime value metrics that can hugely impact the ROI of marketing. Too often it isn’t shared either internally or with stakeholders such as agencies – sometimes through politics or negotiation tactics; and often just because it’s a headache to export and see in any meaningful way even internally. My point is that the more actionable data we all have, internal or external the better job we can all do.

So the answer seems to be that whether internal or external, the most important issue is about integration and data, and having a digital leader that understands the nitty gritty, but is also able to capture the big picture and translate it into business actions.

Good agency staff care as much about your business success as you do; good marketers know that a customers’ interactions are a function of more than just the media plan.

It turns out that good business people are good business people wherever they work, so if you find the right person – keep that person – wherever they are.

Retargeting: Hooray, it works. Let’s do so much of it we piss people off

There was a really interesting article on digiday this week  about retargeting and how the industry enthusiasm for it is risking the health of retargeting, and increasing resentment for online advertising as a whole.

To give some background, the display ad industry has suffered from a reduction in the perceived value of their ad inventory ever since the industry’s inception. Many cost models now exist (CPC – cost per click, CPA – cost per action) but the original pricing model for online inventory was the CPM (cost per mille, yes I know it’s french but it means cost per thousand to the ordinary person). By cost per thousand they mean cost per thousand impressions, and an impression is counted each time one ad is served (each ad may have multiple images within a loop, a drop down or other engagement and run multiple times, but until the ad itself is clicked, or another link on the page, that still counts as only one impression).

When  I first started in online at MSN in *cough* 1999, we asked for, and (sometimes) received, £26 CPMs for untargeted Hotmail inventory, and £29 for targeted inventory which then was only available based on content, not user demographics or any other criteria. Due to limited availability the MSN business channel was always sold out at a rate card of £29 CPM, while we’d do deals for, say £15 for Run of Hotmail, and run a LOT of house and charity ads.

That was during the dotcom boom, however, and things had to change, if only because all the 19 year olds with random website ideas (and funding) either became gazillionnaires or failed miserably. What remained after the chaos was real businesses doing real things and having to use a proper calculation of profitability to justify their share value. That coincided with added trackability of online, past the point of click and all the way to sales or leads that could be attributed back to a media campaign.

Trackability allowed a realistic value assessment (which became a stick with which to beat the display sector), and the huge growth of consumer usage of the internet meant that billions of available impressions were being added to the inventory of websites each month. Within a couple of years we also had networks brokering deals for massive volumes of blind remnant inventory that the publishers just wanted to make *something* from, and the CPMs kept tumbling.

From a few pounds in the mid 2000s, CPMs kept tumbling to sub £1 levels for large buys, meaning display publishers were constantly struggling to make money from their users, and the “pile it high, sell it cheap” approach was a self fulfilling disaster for advertisers as the vast majority of the inventory was wasted.

As users gradually became blind to the banner (the dominant 468×60 pixel image that held sway for a while), click through rates also fell from single figure %s to less than 0.25% meaning every advertiser and publisher was scrabbling to buy as cheap as possible as this was the only way to make the performance figures add up.

It didn’t help that all this was happening at the same time as the growth of search advertising, which with a CPC (cost per click) pricing model was a lot less risky than display, and also fits into the user journey much closer to the final sale, the death knell of display seemed almost palpable.

and then along came retargeting….

Retargeting hinges on cookies. Basically once you have interacted with an ad (clicked on it) or visited an advertisers’ website – anything that can result in a cookie on your PC, you are potentially identifiable (not personally but as a string of text/numbers) as someone who has done this action. This means that advertisers can either a) serve you a specific ad or b) in some instances decide not to advertise to you at all depending on the actions you’ve taken.

Here’s an example:

Yesterday I went on the BHS website to look at lighting in their sale.
Today when I visit the Huffington Post website, this is the ad I see – featuring the exact products I looked at yesterday:

Image

This is a retargeting ad, and is possible because the cookie on my PC captured data of what I was looking at, and BHS have bought a retargeting campaign, probably from a large provider like Criteo or Struq, stating that they want to target people who’ve been to their site and abandoned items in their shopping baskets, to persuade them to come back and complete the purchase.

Brilliant stuff. This works like a DREAM compared to standard display ads.

Target market – BOOM.

In purchase mode – BOOM.

Relevant products – BOOM.

Happy users – BOOM.

No ad wastage – BOOM.

Inventory gains value – BOOM.

Comparative click through and purchase rates went through the roof, ads are capped to only show 4 times per user to avoid annoying them, suddenly display gets back on the media plan, and everyone’s happy, right?

In theory yes, except like pop ups in the mid 2000s, the most successful ad type gets used to the point of saturation. Many advertisers will now only use display for retargeting, and in their enthusiasm for it, they use multiple providers to serve the same campaign. The result of this is that the frequency capping becomes 4 per network or exchange (and many advertisers use several) so the user can see the ad 20 times+. Plus the complexity of managing this many campaigns means that it’s also unlikely they’re  pulling client 1st party data through to show whether the sale was actually made or not – so, as in my case I’VE ALREADY BOUGHT THE DAMNED THING!

How likely is it that customers enjoy this experience and are encouraged to return another time?

Easy answer. It’s not.

<rant>

Given the amount of times that I see an ad after I’ve bought the product, or an insane number of times you’d think that it was difficult to prevent this happening, but it isn’t at all.

Any agency or advertiser using retargeting who doesn’t manage cross campaign frequency is risking not just their own customers, but increasing resentment for the whole online ad sector. And for crying out loud, drop a cookie when people buy so they don’t keep seeing it ad infinitum.

</rant>.

Staff Retention in Digital Advertising

Yesterday’s article by eMarketer, saying that digital ad spending is fueled by savings from other media (rather than meaning the entire media pot is growing) says two glaring things to me for the digital staffing sector:

  1. Supply and demand pressures in digital staffing aren’t about to let up any time soon
  2. If I were a recent graduate or a specialist in offline I’d be busy teaching myself AdWords RIGHT NOW (why aren’t more of them, really?)

Let’s have a look at growth in advertising spendIAB / PwC Digital Adspend H1 2012

IAB / PwC Digital Adspend H1 2012

The ad spend trends from the first half of 2012 give us some data to prove what we all know within the digital industry – not only is digital now the single largest part of all advertising spend (28% over TVs 26% of all advertising spending) but it continues to grow at a recession-defying pace.

With the advertising market overall predicted to have grown by around 3% over the whole of 2012 (source Campaign), digital advertising jauntily grew by 12.6% year on year in the first half of 2012, with paid search maintaining its place as both the largest portion of this (59%) and the fastest growing (15.9% year on year).

This of course is great news for those of us in this industry – our jobs are relatively secure in a world where many other sectors are shedding staff in droves. What these figures don’t tell of course is the underlying story of staff churn and salary inflation created by these figures.

Having worked in digital since 1999, and agencies since 2005 I’ve been a grateful career benefactor of digital supply and demand, and also seen the impact of these issues first hand as manager of digital and search agency teams.

When I joined MediaCom to run the UK paid search department in 2011 I inherited a team of 38 people that had been churning at a rate of over 75% for the last two years.  The reasons were many but not unfamiliar – a great training ground created a bank of very employable staff, who were approached weekly by recruitment consultants/other agencies and offered hugely tempting salaries – which are easy to afford if you don’t have to fund the costs of training or unproductivity for new and management staff during the training process.

Add this to the youth of the agency sector and the fact that most graduates start with a huge debt burden, and it’s not surprising we have the perfect storm for huge staff churn, with all its negative effects on team morale, consistency in client work and time spent recruiting rather than making our teams and our work better. Inc.com has a great article about staff turnover and why it should worry you, and it’s mostly about the vicious circle effect. Churn begets churn, and these factors are just amplified in an industry that’s growing at such an enormous pace – you are running just to keep still, so larger-than-average churn just makes the job even harder.

My approach has always been to treat business as personal. Every decision that we make has an impact on our colleagues, clients and the wider community and it pays to remember that the people you meet will be around to help or hinder you for the rest of your career. Now that any mishap in business or personal life can also be broadcast across the entire Twittersphere within moments, it’s even more important that we are personally involved and authentic in all our professional relationships –besides – who wants to live 1/3 of every day as someone you’re not?

It can’t all be lovely fluffiness of course – we all have bills to pay and clients to service – so for this reason when managing a team I use a two pronged approach to all people management tasks:

Structural foundation: No organisation can work without the building blocks of what, who, and how. Each role within a team needs to have a job description, a personalised set of objectives for each member (based on their client mix, their skills and career aims, and the market’s possibilities), that ensure that the client’s and business needs are fulfilled.

In something as fast changing as digital, with new technologies and partners, the operational tasks that make up the objectives are likely to be changing on a regular basis, so as a minimum 1:1s are needed every 3 months to check that things are on track and the world hasn’t changed under our feet. The detail of the steps may change but career progression needs to be clearly signposted and recognised when it is achieved. Nothing is more demotivating than the goal posts moving mid-way though the game – to your detriment.

The personal approach: One of the best known theories in psychology is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which Maslow contends that once we satisfy our basic physical needs (food, shelter), we move onto satisfying social and status needs, and finally work our way through to self-actualisation – and hopefully finding a real purpose in our lives. Taking the workplace as a microcosm of society, we can have people at multiple levels of this hierarchy within any one team, and crucially it will not necessarily correlate to their career maturity. There will be some who are grateful to just have an income, those who desperately need more money, some who embrace the new and require fast progression or a new job title, and those who need flexibility around their family needs or just want to be with their friends. As a manager our role is to figure out what each team member’s drivers are, and how to satisfy those within the realms of our professional and personal capabilities.

The point is that there is no all encompassing perfect approach – it is different for each member of staff, and keeping up with them all certainly keeps us on our feet. Happily my tenure at MediaCom search saw the staff churn levels from 75% to 28% within less than two years, so I am taking that as a sign of success.

Oh, and remember – you can’t win them all. When people do leave; as they sometimes will for reasons outside your control; let them leave with a smile. You will come across them again – I promise – and you’ll be glad to.