Art & Commerce: This Year Will Suck, If You Let It

When the phone didn’t ring the week before Christmas, I couldn’t have been more excited. And more stupid. See, every year since 1991 (the last recession, not counting the months after 9/11), I’d get a new business call or two at the end of December.

Clients who suddenly remembered “Hey, I want a new agency next year and I’m leaving for Jackson Hole in 36 hours” would call and ask for a proposal on Jan. 5. They’d fly away relieved at having checked a major to-do off the list, while back at the agency we’d have to decide how many hearts to break by cancelling people’s holidays.

This year, in my euphoria that the calls didn’t come, I didn’t connect the dots.

Why didn’t people call?

Because they never call when the next year looks as sucky as 2008 already does.

A survey in the Jan. 14 issue of Adweek reported that 45 percent of CMOs planned to fire at least one of their agencies in 2008, starting with their digital partner. I’m thinking this survey is as accurate as the New Hampshire pre-primary polls. Everybody in marketing knows there’s not always a straight line between intention and purchase. And in this case—as we segue from “Are we in a recession?” to “How long will the horror last?”—most marketers will be hesitant to go for the chainsaw.

That’s what happened the last three recessions. Clients who unarguably knew they could improve their marketing partnerships instead crawled inside their shells to tough it out. In effect, they put the future of their business on hold. I can hear them saying, “I don’t know what the year looks like, my management’s asking me to squeeze every cost, so why would I take the time and effort to hold an agency review. Or make a change?”

Ironically, there’s a lesson here: The best way to get a new agency may be to get your current agency to think like a new one. Sounds crazy, especially coming from someone in the new-business business.

If there ever were a time to challenge your agency to be great, it’d be now. Tell them the harsh reality about your business situation and the pressures you face, and set clear deliverables. But don’t stop there. Ask them under what conditions they do their best work—and what might be inhibiting their performance—and then let ’em at it.

Most important: This is the time for candor. If you hate the creative director or want more inspired thinking from the planning group, speak up. Don’t worry about hurting anybody’s feelings. Despite conventional wisdom, agency people have thick skins and would rather hear the truth today than a month from today, when it’s too late to do anything about it.

Reinvent your agency relationship today, and by March 1 you may feel like you hired a new partner without having to fire the old one.

Under that scenario, 2008 could be a very lethargic new business year for agencies.

But I bet 2008 could turn out to be an amazing new business year for the best agencies. Because while the multitude of marketers will be comfortable staying the course, the really smart marketers know this is their time to pounce.

And that’s the other thing that happened during the last three recessions. The marketers who refused to adopt a bunker mentality and instead looked at it as a perfect time to go after hearts and minds and market share gained all three.

In fact, the American Association of Advertising Agencies did a study on this back in the ’90s, proving that marketers who stayed aggressive during bad economic times came out stronger, healthier and with greater momentum than their competitors. And those competitors had to spend more—over a longer period of time—to get back to where they once were.

Work with your agency to get the best thinking possible. Instead of just taking what the market gives you, stay aggressive and engage the consumer in new ways and places.

But if the magic just ain’t happening, don’t let the business climate stop you from making the changes you know you need.

Hiring a new agency doesn’t have to be three months of agony. Instead of going through the traditional long list/RFP/chemistry check/shortlist/spec creative death march, pick two or three agencies you’re certain can deliver and give them 10 days to solve a thorny problem.

Or even better, meet quickly with each agency and see who instinctively “gets” your business. You can often learn as much about an agency from the questions they ask as the work they do. And ask them the question that only one prospective client has asked me in all the years I’ve been doing this: “I want to be your best client and get your best work. What do I have to do to make that happen?” Based on the agency’s answer, chances are you could make a decision then and there.

The best prospects in 2008—perhaps the only prospects—are those bold, confident marketers who understand that an agency change can be an accelerant to progress rather than a protracted stay on the pause button.

My personal goal is to get every marketer who’s thinking of moving to move early. That way, we can all enjoy the holidays come December.

Mark Goldstein is vice chairman, chief marketing officer at BBDO North America. He can be reached at