Art & Commerce: Walk in My Shoes

With more than 22 years in marketing at companies as diverse as P&G, Radisson, Showtime and Comcast—and now with one of the most horizontally integrated multiplatform male-skewing brands, WWE—I’ve come to know many agencies. They range from midsize shops like the Sawtooth Group and Earle Palmer Brown to mighty merged internationals like DMB&B, Saatchi & Saatchi and now Horizon Media.

I can say without question that my agency relationship is one of the cornerstones of my daily existence. It has had a huge impact on my career, job satisfaction and financial well-being. It’s also a fact of modern business that the amount of time we spend together rivals that shared with my loved ones, Hoya basketball and other interests. And, of course, our fortunes are directly tied. When my agency succeeds, I succeed. When they fail, well, a new draft of a resume may not be far behind.

So why do agency-client relationships thrive, or worse, crash and burn? The answer has to do with the level of client satisfaction or frustration arising from an agency’s grasp of these five areas:

1. Show me you’re thinking about my business 24/7. Due to the Internet, 24-hour news channels, globalization and more, clients live their business 24/7 and need to feel that their agency is doing likewise. This means keeping your creativity and cultural radar on the “on” position at all times, including when you’re watching late-night TV, surfing the Net, shopping, going to the movies, traveling, etc.

For instance, I recently saw Dan Rather on Meet the Press comparing the Obama/Hillary race to a “WrestleMania-styled smackdown.” I promptly texted our chairman Vince McMahon and several of our management team to tell them about it. This spurred collective thinking and actionable tactics to drive our most important event, the $100 million annual revenue-generating WrestleMania, further into the pop culture spotlight that afternoon—not days later, when it would be cold and dead.

Life being the messy beast that it is, these situations, inspirations and opportunities don’t always emerge 9 to 5. I want my agency demonstrating that it’s thinking about my business as much as I am, even at the unlikeliest of times.

2. Share my pain and pleasure, my risks and rewards. In an agency pitch, you always hear the hungry account team wax poetic about how much they love your brand, how they will eat and breathe your business, be by your side in good times and bad. To really impress, however, more agencies need to put these words into action by demonstrating their willingness to share in the ultimate pain or pleasure—the joys and pitfalls of scaleable, performance-based compensation.

Ninety percent of senior marketing execs at publicly traded companies live with a twofold financial package: a base salary and bonuses, scaled to performance—or lack thereof. In my ideal world, more agencies would show confidence in their ability to deliver and exceed expectations by being open to structuring their compensation in a similar way. Accept a little less than the sought-after monthly retainer for the promise of a meaningful bonus based on how well you deliver, one that can conceivably reward you handsomely by well exceeding your desired fee.

3. The need for speed. Agencies can lead the whole decision-making process with a sense of urgency and speed. A quick response to a competitive analysis or recommendation arms a client with the ability to create pressure to get a decision made and a plan enacted. All clients want to be the catalyst for a fast-moving, decisive organization. The speed of their agency in delivering competitive analysis, concepts, media plans and the like can be central to making this a reality.

4. Too many platitudes; give me granular details and specific, actionable recommendations. Social networks, user-generated content and other shifting new media platforms are ways to commune with our constituents along a rich two-way avenue. As clients, we know we have to move swiftly and decisively to take advantage of these ever-widening options.

We don’t, however, need to hear that our brand should be on YouTube, MySpace or Second Life with support documentation in the form of a trend piece cut out of Time magazine. To truly earn a seat at the table, agencies need to provide far more thorough recommendations in these areas. We need granular details in an actionable plan, together with how these decisions could impact other areas of our business—television, pay-per-view, home video, mobile, video on demand and more.

A company like WWE, for instance, already generates 17 million unique visitors and 43 million video streams monthly at its Web site, wwe.com, with some of the most cutting-edge content with mobile carriers here and abroad. We need to know which content from our 90,000-hour library will sell best where, the implication of syndication vs. ad support, and more—not that we need to “put it up.”

5. Know the business of the business. Agencies, it’s not just about helping us create an advertising campaign for the third quarter, it’s about grasping where and how we make our money.

If you work with a large, horizontally integrated concern like WWE, you should have a firm grasp of the fundamentals of our overall business. With a publicly traded company like ours, the knowledge is readily available online (in the annual report, in the 10-K, etc.), so there’s no reason that your agency planning team shouldn’t be almost as well-versed about the business as our analysts. It’s the old P&G model of brand management: attacking each task, large and small, from the basis of how it impacts the P&L.

In the end, your clients are accountable to their companies along these lines. They could benefit from having another set of eyes, another team of well-informed allies, who can help their business and personal fortunes grow along with that of the agency. Is that you?