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  • Writer's pictureLucas Bergmans

How to get more out of your advertising agency

Updated: Jan 4

The biggest lever at a marketer’s disposal to drive growth is creativity.

 

But you can’t always do it on your own.

 

You know that already, though. That’s why you decided to go and hire one of the many talented creative agencies out there to help deliver the next stage of your growth.

 

Only here’s the thing. Hiring an agency is just the start.

 

Getting from this point to creating, producing and launching the best and most effective creative can be a long road and needs a strong partnership between the client team and the agency team. It’s not like working with a supplier who is integrating their awesome tech into your website to make it better or faster. When it comes to creative development, there is plenty of best practise that can improve your odds of success (including my blog!) but nothing is guaranteed, timings are hard to predict and many things can get in the way. And if it doesn’t work out well in the end, the truth is it might have been just as much your fault as the agency’s so replacing them with another agency might not fix the issue.


Building a strong and fruitful partnership with your new agency is a key part of getting to great, effective creative. The most successful brands in the world are – more often than not – founded on these partnerships and they can last a long time, spanning multiple generations of client and agency teams.


So, what’s the secret to making it work?


I spoke to Annie Gallimore, Managing Director at ACNE London for her perspective. Annie has had a glittering career in Marketing and Advertising both as a client and in agencies working on some of the UK’s most famous and impactful campaigns, including Guinness, the NHS, the British Heart Foundation and, of course, Cazoo!


Annie, thank you very much for joining. Why don't we start by you giving us a brief overview of your career so far and what you're doing today at ACNE London?

I started as a graduate at Leo Burnett, but it was when I joined Abbott Mead Vickers as an Account Manager that I began to experience the highs of being part of a team creating fantastic and award-winning creative work for clients. Work that really worked. I was lucky enough to work on Guinness, including ‘Surfer’, which is often still voted as the most popular or the best ad of all time – incredible! Such an amazing experience and such an amazing client. I’ll come on to that a little bit later and the bravery of that client.


I then moved client side, mainly because I felt I was doing just one part of the client marketing mix and wanted to learn more, so I became Head of Marketing at Waterstones and launched their website and loyalty scheme. Having thought I'd be there for a year or two, I was there for six years. It was fantastic, and I learned so much, but I craved the variety of an agency role – more than one brand. I went back agency side, joining Grey London, and ran the British Heart Foundation account where we did the fantastic Vinnie Jones ‘Staying Alive’ campaign, which I'm super proud of.


Then I moved to Engine to run their government framework and worked on the NHS Blood and Transplant ‘Missing Type’ campaign – I love that work! It’s a great example of how you can create and bring to life incredible ideas on a very low budget. I became Managing Director of WCRS and Engine before moving most recently to ACNE in the UK, Deloitte Digital's creative agency, where I lead the agency, using business and cultural insight to solve big creativity and business problems; much more upstream.


It’s great that you've worked on both sides of the fence - mostly agency but also client side - and you’ve worked with lots and lots of different clients. What would you say is the key to a client getting the best out of a creative agency?

"It's understanding from those honest and open conversations what they really don't want to do, what they want to do - what their stakeholders want to see. What is it that is going to work and that isn't going to work?"

First and foremost, I would say honesty. It's a partnership. It has to be a partnership for it to work. It's honesty, and it’s context. Why is that not going to work? Why do we want to say that? Absolute transparency of information. As far as possible, obviously.

I would then also say bravery. And not just with the work, but maybe a different way of working. For example, something I've done with clients in the past was to say, ‘let's be a complete partnership about this. Let's join creative reviews. Let's get the client within those creative reviews with the creative team chatting things over from their conception, coming in with a super open mind from the get-go.’ And it's worked really, really well because you all immediately feel as if you're on the same team from the start. And that way, you're going to get to the strongest work. And everyone is much more invested. It's much more of a partnership rather than a supplier-client relationship. And it also really pushes clients out of their comfort zone, which is good because that's how open and honest conversations around work happen. And it's understanding from those honest and open conversations what they really don't want to do, what they want to do - what their stakeholders want to see. What is it that is going to work and that isn't going to work? So, I think it all boils down to that honesty piece and as much information sharing as can be possible.


And trust your instincts. That is what every creative agency wants to hear. A very famous example of that is Guinness ‘Surfer’. It's gone down in history that the CMO ignored the LINK test results and went with it, and that's amazing. I mean, look at what happened because of that. So that absolute transparency is crucial and then going with your gut.


Finally, it is important to note at this point, that the role of the marketing department is massively changing. In fact, research we’ve done suggests that the marketing department has changed more than any part of a client’s organisation in recent years. There is now so much that the CMO and their teams need to cover to deliver growth for their brand. Its therefore essential that their agencies, and their work, can adapt to those shifts, and deliver them what they need to drive growth.

 

Great examples. And on the flip side, where are the mistakes that clients make that stop them from getting the best work out of their agency?

"Because CMOs move jobs very frequently (...) sometimes they're a bit nervous to stick their neck out in case it goes wrong."

First and foremost, general nervousness around the work. I think it's a fear of failure versus the ambition for the opportunity. And over my career, I've seen this more and more, particularly of late because CMOs move jobs very frequently. And sometimes, not always, they're a bit nervous to stick their neck out in case it goes wrong. And it goes back to the instinct thing; it goes back to the bravery. Having been a CMO, I can understand it. You're putting CAPEX on the line. You're putting yourself on the line. But I think as long as that stakeholder management works and there’s that honesty with the CMO’s bosses, as long as that dialogue keeps going, I believe there is a way around that most definitely.


I would also say a mistake could be relying on research as insurance against failure, versus a chance to learn, build, and improve genuinely. Research should never be the decider on something; it is there to guide and the best CMOs I've ever worked with totally understand that and know what to ignore and what to embrace. And again, if you've got a strong partnership as an agency and a CMO, that will work.

Something I also find quite interesting as a mistake, is herd mentality. What I mean by that is clustering around the category norms versus consciously trying to create space and distance and doing something different and standing out. Take the automotive sector; I watch every piece of car advertising very closely but then think, ‘You're all saying the same thing!’ In fact, I heard my 11-year-old son watching a car ad the other day and say, ‘Why do car ads just always pull up in front of a cliff or go round a road?’ and I thought, oh wow, you know nothing about this, and already you're noticing the tropes of a category and I think that's sad. As well as a missed opportunity.


Take EVs (electric vehicles). Women apparently are more disinclined to buy an electric vehicle than men. And a lot of that comes from the fact that EV advertising at the moment doesn't talk about what it is that they want to hear when it comes to EVs, ie reliability to get to and from where they need to get to. They don't need massive open roads. They just need to know that they will not be stuck in the middle of the A3. There's a lot to be learned in that particular category, but more generally, you should see what the category is doing and do something different. And that brings me on to building a distinctive voice for the brand. I think that's the worst mistake that can be made - having something that really doesn't stand out for your brand.


Another thought I had, was failing to realise or accept that campaigns can improve over time. The first ad in the campaign is rarely the best. Take Compare the Market and the Meerkats. That first ad in 2009 was an incredibly simple introduction. Witty, but a relatively bland introductory execution. They have become much more sophisticated and have permission to be funnier. They might have lost their way slightly now, but I think that journey over nearly 14 years is incredible. And I think it goes back to the bravery point, but it is so much about learning and evolving.

 

Fantastic, great examples. We are focused on scale-ups within this blog. Almost by definition, it's businesses that are approaching this challenge for the first time and with a unique set of challenges. Have you worked with those kinds of companies and if so, what are the challenges you think are unique to scale-ups when they're managing a creative agency often for the first time?

"Whilst budgets will always be a challenge, what is probably your biggest challenge can also be your biggest strength."

Yes, most definitely. Cazoo is probably the best example, but also at the other end of the scale a start-up called Doddle, which was baby-weaning cutlery. So, two ends of the spectrum, in terms of the spend available, and also the experience of the founder and the bravery of the founder. They most definitely had similar challenges, and budget is more often than not going to be the main one.

Cazoo was very unusual in that it had a substantial budget, but obviously investors will only allow for so much marketing spend. And also, budget is just one part of it. The NHS Blood and Transplant ‘Missing Type’ example is a good one - less than £100,000 worth of budget, and it totally punched above its weight.


So, whilst budgets will always be a challenge (not just for scale-ups in this current climate), what is probably your biggest challenge can also be your biggest strength. Constraints force you to be more creative and think outside the box - an incredibly creative idea can come from nothing. Then finding smart ways to make as much noise as possible with your limited budget is key. That’s something ACNE has been historically amazing at. IKEA x Balenciaga bag, Qween’s Speech and recently Toilet, Teeth, Tits with Stella McCartney, are all campaigns that had limited media budget, but we found a way to use the idea to create talkability and therefore work much harder.


I think the other set of challenges for start-ups is the founder. Understandably, they know what they want and often have an obvious picture in their mind. And that is hard for employee number two, who is usually the CMO, to keep aligned with when managing an agency when it’s something that hasn’t been done before. What’s interesting about a start-up or scale-up is that the stakeholders are fewer, but they are arguably much more impactful. And I think that is a super key challenge to navigate for any CMO coming into something small and scaling up.

 

My perspective on that - having worked on Cazoo with the founder, but also previously much more established, older businesses – is that for a founder, a scale-up is their baby. It's got their name on it. Not literally, but they've created it from nothing, so I think the emotional attachment to everything to do with that is that much more significant than for a CEO who's a professional manager. That makes a lot of difference.

"Every creative agency wants to be a part of launching something shiny and new and having that clean slate."

I think that's really true. And in fact, I think honesty and the being upfront about what the founder expects and who the stakeholders are is even more important. It's all of that but with bells on. It has to be. But if possible, I would recommend an agreement where the agency has more skin in the game because it will make all the difference to what comes out of it. Obviously, this can only happen with some start-ups, and that's a big negotiation. And every creative agency wants to be a part of launching something shiny and new and having that clean slate, but by having skin in the game, by creating a true partnership, you will get to a much, much higher level of output. That's an interesting conversation to have when you are beginning to work with a creative agency as a start-up.


Another top tip would be to use the account management of your agency. It will be necessary now as a tiny start-up team more than ever to use that expertise in the agency. It's likely you'll need to have the resources of an entire team. Still, that extension of the agency can be your friend and make the difference between something fantastic and the danger of going out with a bit of a fizzle rather than a bang.


So, Annie, can you give us your top three tips for any scale-ups appointing and managing a creative agency for the first time?

Firstly, I think honesty and being upfront about what the founder expects and who their stakeholders are would be my number one.


Secondly, use every part of the agency, particularly the account managers who are that extension of your team, when you have yet to get an entire team for yourself. Really tap into the expertise there because you'll get an involved and exciting agency by doing that.


And then thirdly, if you can, that financial skin in the game when it comes to all creating something together.

 

And can you think of one mistake that they should avoid?

You'd hope that by the fact that they have joined a start-up, this will already be the case, but my number one is: don't follow the rule book. Work with your agency in a totally different way from how you've done before. Don't bring the baggage of your big corporation. Embrace the whole partnership of agency and clients and ‘one team’ because it will get you to a much better, more honest, and therefore more effective place.

 

Fantastic. Thanks very much, Annie. 

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