#AgencyLife – The Big Agency Lie

A shot of the Cerebra office

Let me tell you how advertising agencies work.

Agencies, by and large, sell hours. Unless they find a way to productise intellectual property or build a clever piece of proprietary technology, agency businesses scale by adding staff as they add clients. Win a client, hire people. Lose a client, fire people.

Agency owners and executives make money by consolidating with or selling to larger agencies or networks. When founders or shareholders exit they leave their organisation without its key creative or strategic leadership, often with catastrophic implications. The cycle repeats itself over and over again with relentless predictability. Agencies that were all the rage (often on the back of a single piece of work, award or client win) find themselves scrapping for work a few years down the line.

Somewhere between starting and selling an agency you realise that the only ways to make better than average margins when billing hours is to exploit staff, or manipulate clients. If you’re a nice person, this is troublesome. If you’re a dick, you carry on and enjoy the ride.

Having had zero agency experience and limited business acumen when I started Cerebra, this realisation came as a bit of a shock to me. Today, we interview people who go to great pains to tell us they’re not eight-to-fivers, not afraid of hard work, not shy of high levels of stress. This is, after all, #AgencyLife.

This is a thing. It’s a meme. It’s widely accepted that working at an agency means killing yourself for the ‘cause’.

What utter bullshit.

If our staff have to slave away from 7am to 11pm all week and come in on weekends scrambling to finish work there are only two possible explanations: They’re lazy and don’t get their allotted work done in office hours, or (more likely) we run a crappy business that forces people to work themselves nearly to death on the back of unrealistic deadlines, poor resource allocation and mismanagement.

Overworked employees are not the only messy byproduct of broken agency business models. The fundamentally unhealthy nature of many agency client relationships is a far deadlier cancer.

There’s a reason why the Madison Avenue overlords of the 50s and 60s call their reign the Golden Age of Advertising. The romance and mystery of the practice in that era resulted in agencies charging a massive premium for creative services that didn’t necessarily have to track back to measurable results. Enamoured clients were manipulated and abused. That dynamic has come full circle today, and when big business feels the squeeze marketing budgets suffer first. Agencies clamber over one another for client work, saying yes to any and all opportunities, bad-mouthing each other, and winging it on work they shouldn’t have attempted in the first place, instead of prioritising shared value and fighting for mutual respect.

Last year we terminated our relationship with a major brand on the back of what we believed to be a better opportunity for shared value with one of their competitors. We were well within our contractual rights to do so. Man, were they pissed! How dare WE fire THEM?

“Agencies don’t fire clients. Clients fire agencies!”

The last three pitches Cerebra attended were all rigged to shoe a specific agency partner in to a client, not to genuinely evaluate the respective skills and experience of the short-listed candidates. We dance around like monkeys in a cage begging for a banana from a kindly onlooker – it’s shameful. Staff get so amped and motivated by new business briefs and pitches and so utterly devastated when we aren’t chosen.

More often than not agencies don’t get paid to pitch. This means that the first R250k worth of work for the client is done for free in the hope of beating other agencies (also working for free). You present your most compelling ideas and seldom manage to justify the the budget to deliver at that level. But the expectation that you can deliver that level of work for free or next to nothing is set. Recovering from that is almost impossible – nearly everything you do after is a disappointment.

Every single mutually beneficial and valuable client relationship Cerebra has ever had begun with an open discussion, a real need and a slowly but steadily evolving scope of work.

Pitches are broken and breed broken results. They’re like The Bachelorette for business.

Because many agencies are deeply insecure about their ability to show tangible results, awards become their primary differentiator. This fuels the unhealthy dynamic between clients and agencies even more. Work is done because it wins awards, not because it achieves business objectives. Choosing an agency primarily on its awards is like choosing an intimate partner based on the car they drive.

Craig and I have no immediate plans to exit from Cerebra. We flipping love this company. Having said that, if we are still “just an agency” when we do leave one day, we will consider our tenure in leadership as a failure. We are wholeheartedly determined to find better, more sustainable ways to run our company that diminish or eradicate some of the broken dynamics I’ve alluded to in this post.

This starts with ensuring that our colleagues have healthy working lives. That does not mean that they don’t work hard. It means that they work passionately and constructively in their contracted hours, not because they feel they have to but because they know they’re part of something great – something that is changing the world of business forever. It means they leave us happier, smarter and wealthier than when they joined us. Over 25% of all people that have left Cerebra have gone on to start their own successful businesses. We think that’s rock ‘ n roll.

It also means agency leadership taking more responsibility and accountability for the health of their businesses. I will publicly lynch the next agency exec I see blaming juniors for client hiccups. That behaviour is cowardly and detestable. Running a great agency means making a profit as a by-product of happy people, not at the expense of people!

Lastly, it means fostering client relationships built on mutual trust and respect and fixing or even in some cases terminating those that are abusive in nature. Mutual trust and respect comes from us establishing unequivocal thought-leadership and market dominance by constantly pushing the boundaries of our industry – the onus is entirely on us (and not the client) to prove value. If there is a lack of education on the part of the client, it is our responsibility to educate.

Agencies have the opportunity and insight to change corporations from the inside out. The only reason we don’t get asked to play that role more often is because we haven’t earned the right. It’s time to up our game. It’s time to change the power dynamic and win our seat at that table.

Update: Thank you to all of you who shared and liked this post – a surprising response to something I didn’t expect many people to see. There’s a great danger that this post leads you to believe we have solved all these challenges, and that Cerebra has no hiccups, which is not remotely the case. We are however absolutely committed to finding better ways to do what we do all the time, with the best interest of rad humans at heart. If you’d like to get in touch with me to debate, discuss or deliberate, do so here. Please also visit Cerebra’s site to see what we do there. 

  • Uno de Waal

    Totally true. That macho cut throat culture does nothing for creative talent: http://unodewaal.co.za/2013/09/the-cut-throat-economy-of-creative-talent/

  • Markus

    Very true. I can honestly say that the agency I work for has the client’s and employee’s best interests at heart and I know that’s not normal.

  • Claude

    Well written Mike, and very true, Have respect for you to write the stuff that leaders do not want to talk about – very bold

  • “I will publicly lynch the next agency exec I see blaming juniors for client hiccups.”

    This. As another agency boss says “Shit rolls uphill”. Sure its doesn’t work in terms of gravity and all, but its true.

    One thing that I found key in my corporate marketing life is that clients feel “I pay you. So basically I own you.” I don’t know how you change that perspective and develop something that rewards the agency (with money) and the client (with business results).

    • Coenraad Loubser

      I think the perception of money needs to change. Spending money is more like watering a plant, than anything else. You pay people you like so they can do more of the things you like. If you could do it yourself, why would you pay them? And if you’re paying them, who are you to tell them how to do it? Sure, sometimes it is a case of that you can do it yourself, but you have better things to do… so perhaps in those cases it’s justified.

  • Kelly Scott

    Well said, Mike. An agency is only as good as its people. As soon as the dream becomes dollar signs rather than facilitating a happy, healthy working environment where creativity can flourish, someone needs to put a brief in for a couple of small (MASSIVE) tweaks to be made.

  • Great honest post Mike. Painfully true. If pitch fees had to be paid to all agencies asked to submit their ideas it would at least lighten the load. At the end of the day though it wouldn’t fix the power/relationship struggle which can only be considered okay when there is a mutual respect for each other.

    Good luck on both fronts – changing the broken business model and on changing the respect dynamic. If you can get both of those right then you’ll have succeeded where most haven’t even realised there’s a problem :)

  • Nailed it again Mike. I mirror all of these sentiments, which is why Semantica seldom pitch on accounts too. You should do a post on the dynamics of multiple agencies (eg a lead agency governing execution/strategy) working on a single account or companies putting an account out to pitch with no intention of changing agencies, just to shake things up and get fresh ideas…

  • Mark Smith

    Mike, #nailedit. Some great stuff in here, and I love the insight you give us all. I wrote what I thought here. http://imsmith.appmatters.io/mikes-right/

  • kevdogdog

    really direct blog – well done Mike – and its been happening for year

  • Jamie-Leigh

    Thanks for much Mike. I love the Raw emotion. I respect the fact that you value your employees so much and I’m sure it shows in the work at Cerebra!

  • ogoditsandre

    Couldn’t agree more Mike, I worked at an agency in Cape Town, who is supposed to be “The Agencies Favourite Agency”, I wasn’t inspired there and everyone gets treated like a number, it definitely affected the quality of my work. Good article. Cerebra sounds awesome.

  • Gareth

    I can’t like this article enough – very VERY true.

  • This week I saw 2 loyal colleagues who worked for well over 10 years at an agency sacrificed to save a client. Disgusted me. So your article is spot on.

  • Ben Wagner

    Great article and one I deeply connect with. However, I’m not sure whether these issues are mutually exclusive to agency life or whether this is just part of business life in general. As you know I too have chosen the life of agency leader, which I wouldn’t trade for anything as I genuinely believe that we’re creating work that makes a difference to brands and hopefully to society as a whole. Fact is, modern day business is full of the cut ‘n thrust of shady deals, overcoming obstacles and generally dealing with modern man’s evilness. Sadly it needn’t be this way, but we’re a shady species that has to prevail over others, which is why its so tough if you know where your moral compass is. Stay true to yourself, karma has a way of regularly sorting things out and we’ve found that if you behave like a gentleman, you’ll be rewarded accordingly.

    • Thanks Ben – really appreciate the comment. While I agree that corporations have done a terrible job of maintaining humanity in the course of building empires, I’m not really qualified to comment on them. I do think the business model and client dynamic of most agencies is very unhealthy, which is up to us to fix. Lastly, I would disagree that modern business is defined by shady deals – I think business that make a profit and do good at the same time are dominating those that aren’t.

  • Cameron Watson

    I agree with the sentiments in here, and I feel the rot stems largely from the deterioration of the client – agency relationship. The problem is that ALL business models die if they don’t break even or make a profit, and that will always be the true north that affects the moral compass. This makes it very hard to implement an ideological stance of being a nurturing and fair business. For instance the third requirement for a job at Cerebra states “Must be willing to work long hours”, and I think you would be hard pressed to find an agency that doesn’t require it. The difference between big business and agency life if that after working long hours in most other businesses you either get paid overtime, or you get leave in lieu. Start doing this and the attrition we see in agencies might stop, and loyalty may increase.

    • Hi Cameron – thanks for your comment. I’m a little unsure which Cerebra job application says that – I’ve just sifted through as many as I can on the site.

      In eight years I’ve asked team members to stay late once. They work late often, but not because I instruct them to. If they’re working late consistently the alarm bells go off and we try fix it.

      Also, being a healthy or fair business is not an ideological stance, it’s an imperative. I don’t think modern business has any other differentiators left!

      • Nick Paul

        Hi Mike! Just in response to Cameron’s post and your reply, here’s a job spec with the “must be willing to work long hours” point: http://www.cerebra.co.za/jobs/creative-director/

        In response to the whole article, this was a fascinating read. I’m in the process of mulling over branching out from in-house marketing to kicking off a new niche ‘agency’ with an industry colleague. How important do you think it is to have hard and fast values set up from the beginning? Did you at Cerebra decide right from the start that these were your values or did they evolve over time? Did you have to compromise on something you thought was right but realised it wasn’t good for business?

        • Thanks Nick. That ad is a unique instance, I’ll have it corrected ASAP.

          I don’t think we ever started Cerebra with our values at the forefront of our mind, but when we looked back after a few years we realised there were some things that were always consistent. We have since tried to articulate, hone and amplify those, and it seems to work ;)

          • Cameron Watson

            Hi Mike, it wasn’t a dig, it was purely an observation. We often stand at lecterns and put our stake in the ground and then go back in on the Monday morning and it’s business as usual. I still believe that what you say in this article is correct, the current model is broken and reading the comments here, it won’t be an easy fix, but we have to at least try.

            Thanks Nick, for posting the link.

  • Joe Public

    As someone who has worked at many agencies including the big red I wholeheartedly relate to this. The Big red is a prime example of this. I work in the tech space and see really shitty executions, over inflated stats for clients and awards and very little to no proper ROI for client.

  • This can be applied to the software development industry as well.

    Be fair all round. Be ethical. Focus on sustainable systems. Look after your people and they’ll look after you. The word will get around and people will want to work with you. Karma exists.

    I won’t lie; working this way is hard. Some clients will abuse you and take you for a ride, not pay and basically find any way to screw you, but hey, that’s probably why there are lawyers and fat frustratingly complex and tiresome contracts.

    I’ve found the clients with the fewest hoops tend to be the clients that stick around the longest.

    Relationships are everything.

    • Coenraad Loubser

      Problem is that you get people who take a month or more to do things that others accomplish in a week. Almost every single potential client is utterly incapable of comparing apples with apples.

      This in itself is a business case, with a fairly obvious solution. But such a solution will never be allowed through the front door.

      • Yup, totally.

        Also some people charge a month’s money for a weeks work. (I’m not talking about those people who deliver a month’s value in a week – those people exist too)

        Many factors to consider.

        In most cases I don’t think it’s even possible to compare apples with apples, in many cases product, price, timeline and service are all different, it’s really about understanding your needs(yes, that’s asking a lot) and then determining who you’d like to work with and then working on solutions together. It’s freaking difficult.

        Something I’m trying to solve though my consultancy.

  • Sharon

    Your article really resonated with me and I found it full of interesting (yet truthful) observations. Having worked both agency and client sound now, I feel one of the biggest challenges is clients expectations across the board. Maybe this commences at the pitch stage. Equate the amount of time an agency spends on delivering a pitch and ask them to deliver the same with their product or service and I’m pretty sure the answer would be “definitely not”. But all agencies are now in the predicament where clients expect more and more and it becomes a vicious cycle impacting on resources (extra hours), profit and the ability to retain or even win a new client. It’s only the unique clients who are far more realistic and willing to view you as a true business partner that facilitate an equitable partnership as opposed to submissive partnership.

    Finding different ways that enable an agency to make money is critical. Unfortunately the ‘Golden Age’ wasn’t kind for the credibility of our industry. And we have been playing catch up ever since. So an agency model needs to be about more than just billable hours to survive and even thrive.

    I too work in an agency that is trying to do things differently. And no bones about it, it’s hard work when you are up against the rest of the industry. And if I ever end up client side again, I will absolutely be sure to work by hardest to do things differently and be a client every agency wants to work with!

  • MediaOwner101

    “We dance around like monkeys in a cage begging for a banana from a kindly onlooker” , as a media owner trying to sell digital and more specifically mobile advertising solutions to clients, this is exactly how I feel. In fact I’m sure most media owner sales people would agree. Clients, brands and agencies no longer buy media space based on the quality or relevance of the site but rather because of the relationship they have with the media owner and I see my role now changing from actively selling the media space to actively building client relationships.

  • Andrew MacKenzie

    Spot on, every single line had me saying that. Great article and kudos for voicing it. Your approach will get a lot of young creatives excited about working at your agency. Nice one.

  • Les

    Mike; great article! Even as a media owner I have to agree. Especially in the digital space. There are strong niche markets like the Afrikaans market with spending power. As a media owner we are willing to go al the way like assisting with creative executions, because we understand the pressure we work under and the market we represent but these ideas never or seldom gets to client? We have so many exciting ideas! Some of the bigger clients have taken up the opportunity to advertise within this market with GREAT results – comes back to us all working together addressing the need and expectations of clients and building a partnership of trust for years to come!

  • Coenraad Loubser

    Almost everything you mention applies to all business and is hardly unique to your industry. Your gripe seems primarily with some of the primitive ways people deal with competition, and how this gets institutionalized.

    When it comes to digital, perhaps its no surprise that the industry is littered with so much immaturity. If you had asked someone 10 years ago to invest in what you do now, they would’ve laughed at you. Most of your industry was started by people with very little mature business experience.

  • Peter

    Great read. Thanks for this Mike, useful insight for a startup like ours.

  • Anonymoose

    “Craig and I have no immediate plans to exit from Cerebra.”

    How about after the buy out period from WPP??

    http://www.cerebra.co.za/blog/wpp-acquires-majority-stake-cerebra/

    • Happy to answer that question in detail, publicly, but not if you stay Anonymoose.

  • Shinji Akhirah

    On point, concise and completely relevant. Great insights Mike.

  • Philippe Pache

    Mike, absolutely loved this article! Brilliant says it as it is and really captures an industry wide issue and also the ramifications that come with client perceptions. I am saying such as i Started Straight Twisted the same way as you have.

  • Nicci Stewart

    I
    think this whole industry is on the brink of a very serious overhaul.

    How can you expect to give your clients advice that is the best for
    their business when your biggest concern is making a sale because your
    own business is in trouble? Can you imagine: No Mr Client don’t run that
    campaign that’s going to result in R4 million worth of billing for me
    because the problem isn’t communication it’s in your production – your product is flawed and no amount of advertising is going to increase your sales. So
    rather spend the money and fix that (i.e. I don’t get any money from
    you).

    The agency model in itself has become a conflict of interest. We’re turning to used-car salesmen.

    • cel

      But the company sets aside budget for the advertising dollars themselves… As an agency, we don’t have much say on the budget. We just get the pie and decide how to eat it. We may try to get a larger piece but in the end, the company dictates the size and it will not be much bigger than originally planned for.

  • In order for any brand or business to survive in this day and age, including the ad industry, it has to remain relevant and authentic. Advertising by its very nature is inauthentic even at the best of times. Today’s hyper-informed consumers are no longer being fooled by the bells and whistles we call marketing and in turn they respond by creating their own content that is relevant to them. They buy into brands that are authentic and share that experience with their peers faster that any ad agency can recreate it. Brands like Uber (valued at $41 billion) and Airbnb have mushroomed overnight off the back of very little or no advertising. Zara’s fast fashion approach has re-invented the way retailers all over the world sell clothes – they can’t advertise because their turnaround is literally to fast to do any marketing. These companies simply tapped into the relevant trends and disrupted industries that desperately needed a shake-up.

    Instead of finding a truly unique angle, the ad industry seems to follow the medium – first print, and then TV and now digital agencies are taking the lead. They don’t have a media neutral offering and their solutions are almost always based on the bottom line. The actual amount of money a client will spend on any content has been distributed to so many entities in creating that content that the only thing they can do is demand faster, cheaper options in order to get more out of what they pay. The industry has literally created their own demise.

    In his article titled ‘The end of advertising as we know it’ Rei Inamoto, Chief Creative Officer at AKQA said, ‘The reality is this: Business ideas from the least expected players and angles will disrupt your brand faster than advertising can save it.’ He couldn’t have been more right. This is by no means an industry bashing response, I ran a successful ad agency in 3 countries for more than 10 years and it’s still going strong today. I sold out of the agency a few years back because I couldn’t shake the feeling that was I was doing and the contribution I was making to society as a whole wasn’t quite right.

    • Guest

      What do you do for a living? My default answer for some time now has been “I ruin the world through advertising.”

  • Guest

    In order for any brand or business to survive in this day and age, including the ad industry, it has to remain relevant and authentic. Advertising by its very nature is inauthentic even at the best of times. Today’s hyper-informed consumers are no longer being fooled by the bells and whistles we call marketing and in turn they respond by creating their own content that is relevant to them. They buy into brands that are authentic and share that experience with their peers faster that any ad agency can recreate it. Brands like Uber (valued at $41 billion) and Airbnb have mushroomed overnight off the back of very little or no advertising. Zara’s fast fashion approach has re-invented the way retailers all over the world sell clothes – they can’t advertise because their turnaround is literally to fast to do any marketing. These companies simply tapped into the relevant trends and disrupted industries that desperately needed a shake-up. Instead of finding a truly unique angle, the ad industry seems to follow the medium – first print, and then TV and now digital agencies are taking the lead. They don’t have a media neutral offering and their solutions are almost always based on the bottom line. The actual amount of money a client will spend on any content has been distributed to so many entities in creating that content that the only thing they can do is demand faster, cheaper options in order to get more out of what they pay. The industry has literally created their own demise. In his article titled ‘The end of advertising as we know it’ Rei Inamoto, Chief Creative Officer at AKQA said, ‘The reality is this: Business ideas from the least expected players and angles will disrupt your brand faster than advertising can save it.’ He couldn’t have been more right. This is by no means an industry bashing response, I ran a successful ad agency in 3 countries for more than 10 years and it’s still going strong today. I sold out of the agency a few years back because I couldn’t shake the feeling that was I was doing and the contribution I was making to society as a whole wasn’t quite right.

  • Jen Gordon

    Great article! Flipping thank you!!!

  • Brandon

    Fantastic article Mike. Very interesting to read from a client’s perspective.

  • Collin Douma

    Yeah, but how? I find it hard to disagree with any of the points you have made, but the challenge here is not in identifying the problem as you very eloquently did… it is in solving it. I find pitches to be soul sucking, spirit crushing exercises in ego. My kingdom for a different way. We are, after all, in a service industry. How do we blow it up for a new model.

    • Casey

      Hey Colin, fist time commenter here but here goes:)
      My hunch is that where Mike begins to change the paradigm here is actually very very early in the client cycle rather than in the delivery phase. It’s a combination of reducing the amount of “pitching” and slowing down the sales process in order to improve the relationship and align on what value creation actually looks like. RFP’s are a race to the bottom and while it’s altruistic to to just say, “don’t respond” – why not do something different? What is your agency uniquely qualified to do? How are your people different? How can you align fees with VALUE instead of HOURS? What questions are other agencies NOT asking because they are too busy getting every box checked in the RFP?

      This absolutely assumes that we are first confident in articulating and showing the value that we bring to the table. That, in and of itself, is a point of competitive differentiation. A number of comments here suggest a transformational shift in the agency world and I believe that at least the head of that tide is coming. As more agencies refuse to pitch, clients will lose the control over that process which is a good thing. Clients need to be taught how to buy digital services and that starts by understanding what their goals are what challenges they are currently experiencing.

  • tyron3

    Hilarious that someone from AKQA would be apart of this article. Massive sweatshop.

  • DeaTH

    Clients don’t pay agencies! Broadcast, print, digital and outdoor pay agencies! Agencies buy the media and the media pays you a commission! Get it?

  • Thanks for this Mike. This is really a problem across the working world – not just in agencies. Having worked in an unrelated corporate field for a number of years (IT and logistics) I can say that with experience. Being a freelancer I can say the exact thing happens – people want a lot of work for free, they want you to go to lots of meetings for free, and then they want to stack you up against other freelancers, frequently ignoring the quality of work or the experience and just focusing on price. I know the exact same thing happens to graphic designers all the time. Of course someone else can do it cheaper than I can. Go to elance.com and find out just how cheap it can get! But can they do it as well? Do they have the experience? Can they get it out as quickly as I can?

    This is a culture thing and it comes down to our consumerist society. But sometimes we also need to be a bit realistic about ourselves and how we are treating the butcher or the tailor down the road – frequently we exhibit the same attitude without thinking about it. At least I’ve found myself doing that.

  • Steven Stark

    Has any agency beat this horrible model and managed to do creative work that earned money for all? Wieden? Crispin? Anyone?

  • Jeff Cue

    The most important statement in the whole piece…and the most true, at least in my experience: “Every single mutually beneficial and valuable client relationship begins with an open discussion, a real need and a
    slowly but steadily evolving scope of work.”

  • AdGeek

    We are all servants of the illuminati.

  • So much truth here it hurts.

    Biggest problem I think is that too many agencies think only in the short-term. They rush like demons for the quick win that they fail to address long-term growth and evolution. Worse is on how they’ve come to embrace/accept the high turnover as well as hiring of “young and cheap” labor too inexperienced to really handle the loads handed to them.

    You always notice how agencies aren’t making those “top places to work” lists, and they all use recruiting agencies to find employees…mainly knowing normal people aren’t hitting up their job postings.

  • Barbara Walker

    This is a great article with so many salient points. Writing this from London, this resonates with me so much at the moment . The competitive environment that agencies operate in London is like nothing I could ever have imagined before I left South Africa 11 years ago. For every client there are literally 100s of agencies that lay claim to being able to deliver the brief.
    As a result, the pace and client expectations of delivery are becoming, in my opinion, untenable. In the past year alone, I have seen colleagues booked off with stress and extreme depression. Worse still, multiple highly skilled people deciding it’s simply not worth it and quitting to do other things, leaving a great void in experienced, clever people. Some agencies here openly pride themselves on harvesting young (read cheap here) talent to do work that in reality requires a few years on the clock to deliver it to the standard sold to the client. Don’t get me wrong, I am hugely passionate about developing young talent, but I am no fan of substitution for the sake of undercutting another agency to win the work. It breaks the young team and delivers shoddy standards.
    I have thought a lot about solutions and the reality is that unless agencies unify more and agree codes of practice amongst themselves and rules of engagement for clients that prioritize delivering brilliant work, in an ethical, responsible manner, at a fair price, the situation will not change. Where you and your agency have the moral fibre to fire ‘vampire’ clients (bravo by the way), there are another 90 standing behind you to pick them up, keeping this vicious cycle alive. Clients learn behavior from previous agencies and visa versa. I really believe that it will take a unified front to stop the abuse that goes both ways and threatens a world in which the possibility of delivering great work to achieve client objectives within fair frameworks for our people and clients alike exists.
    I fell in love with advertising and events as an 18 year old and have done nothing else for the past 22 years. Of late, I have started to question an industry that is increasingly using young, creative people as fodder rather than the pillars on which great campaigns are built.
    It fills me with hope that there are indeed purveyors of the art of brand fandom who believe that it is their people who are their finest assets and great work can only be delivered within a fair framework from clients.
    And if that’s not there. It just isn’t worth it.
    Keep up the great work.

  • Bob McClanahan

    Wow, what an insightful article that sounds really nice and aspirational and will never ever ever be reality.

    C’mon man, if you don’t like agency life, how in the world can you like ANYTHING related to marketing/advertising? It’s all one big joke and circus. Agencies are agencies, whether they’re big or small. And unless your name is on the door or on the “owner” list, do you really think it’s going to get better anywhere? I’ve worked at big and small agencies – there are terrible egos at both, shit work at both, terrible clients at both, and awful work hours at both.

    It’s easy for you to sit on the sideline here and sound great, but what about the people IN those agencies? Are you going to hire 4 million new people?

    • But how do you really feel Bob? ;)

      I’m not trying to sound great. I’m trying to build a better business in a tough industry. If I fail dismally because it’s impossible, hey, at least I gave it a shot.

      Also, I love running and working in an agency. I just don’t like how unhealthy working relationships and habits are passed off as ok.

  • The Doctor

    Great article. I spent a good chunk of my adult life moving up the ladder from copywriter to senior copywriter to ACD and CD at a big agency that cared more about winning awards and working people to death than it did about honesty and respect – which were virtually non-existent. I’ll never work for a big agency again. Unless Cerebra is hiring. Smile.

  • agencyforlife

    is the Craig you are referring to the Craig from Craigslist?

  • Keith K

    Great read, having been both agency side and now client I will not put up with the “I pay you, I own you” in my team nor condone #agencylife with stupid deadlines and poor briefs. Nor am I interested in inflating the bonus of advertising overlords. One rule: do great work that makes a difference with people I like. Life’s too short.

  • “we run a crappy business that forces people to work themselves nearly to death on the back of unrealistic deadlines, poor resource allocation and mismanagement.”

    exactly what I think. Nice article

    • trista

      I had and account service consulting job where i got paid for every hour i worked..
      made 2x of what my salary was at a previous agency.

  • Ana

    I would love to share this on my wall, except i’ll get fired. I don’t understand how agencies can take pride in ranking #3 for the most business in a year and you see all your coleagues overworked and underpaid. It’s retarded. But it’s the only thing I know how to do :(

  • Dave Hamel

    After over 35 years in the business, I’ve been fired and hired. I’ve had clients buy me drinks and others curse me. I’ve worked for some great ones and some jerks. I’ve loved my teams and been disappointed by them. I’ve earned enough to be comfortable but not rich. But the lasting reward is that I have been part of some work for which I am immensely proud.

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  • Stephen

    AMAZING ARTICLE.

    I believe every word you said here. This post resonates with me and I am absolutely emphatic to what you just said.

  • Joe @ HCB Health

    Great article – thanks for sharing your thoughts. I work for an agency in Austin that believes in family and work life balance and it is an amazing feeling for all of us. Sure the work is as you describe, but even the idea of comp creative has been starting to wane. The idea of being respected for your work and your time has a profound influence on potential client partners. Good luck!

  • patflan

    I totally agree with this post. Generally, the relationship between a client and an agency is inequitable in favor of the client and for the life of me, I don’t understand how agencies can pitch against each other for no reward. Surely, as with all business, developing a mutually benficial relationship between two parties is the path to success. So many issues are on the table in the world of marketing (circa 2015) that it seems hard to understand how the status quo of the traditional agency is sustainable.

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  • Karolina

    I love the honesty! I have been saying it for years, agencies need to be more confident in their work and truly believe that their work and time is worth paying for. Just because I have a drill at home doesn’t mean I can drill my own fillings. I respect my dentist’s abilities, although often costly, I don’t question or bargain them down on price. But to our own fault, it’s acceptable for a client, with their home laptop and corel draw, to bargain down a 360 campaign quote by half. The client can produce a successful campaign by themselves as easily as they can perform their own root canal without pain. They may not know that ….. so it’s our job to educate them and build a mutual respect.

  • jorgborgwardt

    The fundamental mistake the author makes is to detail all the wonderful mistakes agencies make like billing their hours or firing people and to then expect that clients will go along with changing “that game”. The conclusion that “we haven’t earned the right” is totally correct but such articles don’t help you earn the right either.

  • Brilliant

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  • Don’t pitch without being paid. It’s that simple.

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  • Chris Sebok

    How do I, as a freelance copywriter, even get an agency to notice me? I’ve applied to them all, yet every small business that has read my writing loves it. I’ve even gone so far as to create mockup prints ads and commercials for big brands, which still hasn’t helped. Pretty much, I’m super lost. I’ve gotten varying degrees of good and bad advice from the internet. Is there anyone who can actually help me?

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  • Big Brother

    So when I first read this a few months ago I was excited to see a leader in the industry speaking out against how broken the system is. “About time” I thought to myself. It was refreshing to hear my sentiments shared by someone that is in the position to start a change in the industry.

    But now, a few months of overtime later (I don’t work for you, don’t worry) and my mind has changed a bit.

    This is a pointless article.

    I, or any junior in any agency, could have written this article. The news is not new – it was only the fact that someone in power was saying it that it held any weight.

    But there is no change associated with you writing this. It’s as if you went – “every agency, including mine, is doing things wrong” and then ignored your very own article. I appreciate the sentiment, but unless you’re going to make a change…meh.

    Do you pay your employees overtime? do you make your employees keep track of their overtime on timesheets? do you charge client the time employees work overtime, even if it’s at a regular hour rate? If you answered No to the first question, and yes to the other two, then you’re as guilty as every other ad agency in the business.

    In my opinion, if clients paid for all the hours spent on work (particulary overtime, at overtime rates), their expectations would change. It’s because businesses are willing to trade their employee’s unpaid overtime for “free” work for clients that the cycle continues, at no financial loss to the business. Businesses are using an asset that is not theirs to leverage (the unpaid overtime of their employees’ lives) as a selling point to fullfil clients needs. Whoever offers more free overtime, wins more business.

    I mean, if you were willing to let your employees do 500 hours of unpaid work for 200 hours worth of profit, and I’m willing to let my employees do 700 hours unpaid work for the same profit, cllients are going to go with me. Simple. And its ok for me becuase if my employees work 200 or 700 hours, I still get my margins as there’s no overtime. Winning.

    But of course, for this to work, every ad agency needs to charge overtime simultaneously, and that’s not going to happen because morals aren’t advertising’s strong points.

    • Hey. So firstly I don’t consider myself an industry leader. Mine is a relatively small, niche business that doesn’t make the headlines and doesn’t win many awards. This was written primarily as a catharsis and I didn’t anticipate for a second the ripples it would create. I’m not trying to start a revolution – I’m trying to be conscious about how I run my business and encourage others to do the same.

      In answer to your questions, I do pay my employees overtime. We don’t allocate hours we haven’t billed for, and if we do we bill them back to client. As I said in the article, if employees are constantly working overtime something’s broken in my business or in client relationships. We’re not perfect by any means, but we’re trying to run a healthy business.

      • Big Brother

        I dunno about being a small niche business – Cerebra is one of the best known digital/social agencies out there, so I would assign a lot of weight to your word

        and bravo for the overtime thing – that’s amazing. that really is commendable

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  • Steve JamesRoyle

    Wonderfully put Mike! We share your views and are trying to do our little bit to help change the perception. TYC close our doors at 6, do not free pitch, encourage health and a work life balance and best of all, have a written rule: anyone comments ‘half day is it?!’ when someone leaves on time, it’s a sackable offence. Respect to you guys for making a difference and here’s to a better, stronger and more respectful industry that we all love

    • Thanks for the feedback Steve and it sounds like you have it down. Best was the “half day” sackable offence. Love it.

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