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Author Archives: Michael Farmer

About Michael Farmer

Michael Farmer is Chairman of TrinityP3 USA and author of Madison Avenue Manslaughter: an inside view of fee-cutting clients, profit-hungry owners and declining ad agencies, which won the Axiom Gold Business Book Award for the best marketing / advertising book of 2016. He currently serves as Adjunct Associate Professor of Branding and Integrated Communications at The City College of New York (CCNY) and is at work on a new book about the challenges facing Chief Marketing Officers.

Do You Really, Truly Want to Transform Your Agency?

Are you tired of being shoved around by clients?  Worried about your fees?  Missing your budgets?  Is your creativity undervalued?  Are your best people quitting for better jobs?  Do benchmarkers set your fees? Do you remember the good old days, when you trod the gilded C-Suite corridors?  When you were treated with respect?  When your work was award-winning and it really mattered?  When what you did made a difference?  Friend, you need a transformation.  A real transformation. Continue reading

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Ad Industry’s Talent Crisis is a Symptom, Not a Disease

ANA was brave to issue a “scathing report” (per AdAge) on the lack of talent in the advertising industry.  Certain outsiders were fingered as contributing to the talent problem: universities that “aren’t keeping pace with the industry’s changing needs” and consultancies and tech giants that are offering “more generous salaries and perks.”  (Shame on them!) On top of this, Millennials remain an enigma — why aren’t they more eager to enter the industry?  What ANA did not describe were the day-to-day operations of advertisers and agencies that have turned the advertising working environment into a relatively unattractive one for job-seeking graduates, a trend that has been in swing and gaining momentum for the past 15 years.  Continue reading

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Let’s Hear It for Madison Avenue’s Makeover!

Social media has turned us, I regret to say, into relentless, dour critics. In the advertising industry, every misstep is pounced on and amplified. Dove, Pepsi, McDonald’s and their agencies are pilloried for trying and failing. Misjudgments, mistakes and tone-deaf efforts are treated as capital crimes.  I’m as guilty as anyone, having written a long critique of ad agency management in my recent book, Madison Avenue Manslaughter, and in writing these weekly pieces. Whatever my (and our) good intentions might be, non-stop criticism is soul-destroying. It makes us tiresome and grumpy.  At a certain point in time, we need a shift of focus, from the negative to the positive — from Madison Avenue’s Manslaughter to Madison Avenue’s Makeover. Continue reading

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The Other Opioid Epidemic: The (Brief) High from Chasing New Business

The agency CEO asked me not to use his name.  He wanted to talk privately over breakfast.  “You know, this new business thing is getting to be a problem, he said.  “We’re addicted to falling in love with our next new client, and the one after that and the one after that.  They will solve all our problems.  We’ll do great award-winning work, be well paid, and loved in return … and all the industry crap will disappear.  We’ll pour our heart and soul into winning them.  They’re coy; both flirtatious and distant, making us want them even more.  We’re no better than lovesick teenagers.  And when it goes our way, and we get together and have a wonderful first year, it’s true love … before it turns to crap.  We hate the crap.  We would rather be in love.  That’s why we love new clients and everything it takes to win them.”

Are agency-client relationships becoming loveless marriages that end up on the rocks?  Do the divorced partners, free of the ties that bind, become serial daters, falling in and out of love so often that “commitment” sounds boring and dated — something that was done by their parents in another creative era?  If brands are the children of agency-client relationships, what will happen to them as they’re shuttled from one relationship to another? Will they grow and make positive contributions?  Or, more likely, will they underperform (as they are today)? Continue reading

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Don’t Count Out the Holding Companies – At Least Not Yet

The latest holding company news, gleefully reported in the trade press, shows a shortfall in WPP’s first half 2017 growth rates, with forecasts of lower long-term growth in coming years.  WPP’s share price took a dive.  Campaign U.S. headlined “Sorrell under pressure to streamline WPP as FMCG clients cut back on marketing.”  Panic!  WPP is not the only holding company affected by advertiser spend cutbacks, but Sir Martin is highly visible, and he takes most of the industry flack.  How concerned should investors be?  Don’t count out the holding companies yet.  They have not played all the potential cards in their hands.

Holding companies have been visibly with us for the past 30 years, and during that time they have pursued Three Big Growth Strategies:

1) Acquiring marketing communications and research companies;
2) Setting and enforcing aggressive portfolio company budgets, requiring agency revenue and margin growth through business development, cost reductions, and other efficiencies; and
3) Selling “holding company relationships” to give clients a broad range of agency services across media disciplines – required because their individual agencies did not integrate across disciplines.

There are other holding company initiatives, of course, like providing back-office services for portfolio companies (travel, accounting, IT, etc.) but the Three Big Growth Strategies have dominated their activities. Continue reading

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What Happens When Ad Agency Creative Magic Fails?

Ad agency creativity was pure magic in the traditional days of Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy.  Advertised brands flourished and grew, and iconic brands like Tide, Budweiser, McDonald’s, Visa, Chevrolet, American Express and others became genuine Lovemarks, earning countless millions for their brand owners.

Agency creativity has been much less magical in recent years with the advent of digital and social media, “content” instead of ads, and the widespread introduction of technology and e-commerce to the changing demographic mix of consumers, with fickle Millennials now the dominant segment.  Iconic brands are dead in the water, marketing spend is shrinking, and CMO job tenure is short and uncertain.  The magic of creativity disappeared along the way. Continue reading

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When “Best Practices” are Worst Practices

Did you hear about the infamous Army briefing during the Vietnam War? “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.” The briefing referred to a terrible act, the annihilation of a Vietnamese village by overwhelming American firepower, carried out during a terrible war that was lost in any case. So it goes when tactics, rather than strategies dominate a conflict. Less gruesome, but relevant is the bungled tactical war between advertisers and agencies. Well-meaning tactical “best practices,” used extensively and nearly universally by marketing procurement departments, are worst practices that destroy agency capabilities and annihilate partnerships. Unfortunately, agencies are equally complicit in their destruction.

The Relationship War began, like many wars, with a skirmish and a few opening shots. In the ’90’s, media commissions were giving way to labor-based fees, and advertisers were clueless about agency headcounts, salaries, overhead rates, and profit margins (let’s leave aside the stupidity of adopting this labor-based approach). Advertisers asked their agencies to provide the necessary cost details. Agencies demurred, offended by the request, failing to recognize that procurement folks had been used to knowing intimate details from their manufacturing and distribution suppliers, and they expected the same transparency from their marketing communications suppliers. The agency refusal to cooperate infuriated procurement. As one exasperated executive told me in 2003, “Who the hell do they think they are, anyway? A bunch of prima donnas. I’m going to whack their fees by 10% — maybe that will send them a message.” Agency fee cutting became procurement’s raison d’être, and over the decades fee-cutting took on many sophisticated forms: Continue reading

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Take the Pledge! End Madison Avenue’s Manslaughter!

Madison Avenue’s self-destructive practices need to come to an end!  In the wake of a decade or more of marketing cost reductions, CMOs have lost credibility and power; procurement departments have confused benchmarking with marketing, and demoralised agencies have seen their capabilities severely compromised through downsizing, juniorising, and Scope of Work inflation. Cost reduction programs have run their course. They were never a credible substitute for brand growth as a way of delivering shareholder value. Continue reading

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The Ad Industry at War with Itself

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of ANA’s “media transparency” recommendations, which followed a major investigation of media agency practices. Lest we forget how central media transparency is to ANA, Bob Liodice (President and CEO of ANA) and Doug Wood (outside legal counsel) published a MediaVillage article in mid-July reminding us that “if the allegations against the [media] agencies are true, the behaviour is reminiscent of past high-profile financial scandals.” Continue reading

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Who’s Guilty and Who’s Innocent in the Industry’s Transparency Wars?

Bill Duggan recently penned a piece in MediaVillage.com continuing the ANA’s attack on ad agencies – this time over production transparency, which is the code name for unethical and possibly illegal bid-rigging activities conducted by some agencies to secure production contracts at favourable rates. A previous transparency issue, media transparency, was investigated by ANA in 2016, and it confirmed instances of media agencies enriching themselves at client expense through rebates, kickbacks and other “non-transparent” practices, many of them not forbidden by existing contracts. Continue reading

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ANA and 4As Duke It Out in a Complete Mismatch

ANA, ever-faithful and aggressive on behalf of its advertiser members, struck a second blow to 4As recently — a right uppercut to the chin — with a new ANA study of advertising production practices. The report detailed “a range of improper behaviour, including allegations that some agencies have steered production contracts to their in-house production and post-production outfits by urging other companies to inflate their prices during the bidding process,” as reported in WSJ. Continue reading

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Ad Agencies: Prisoners of a Creative Past

Who needed “hands-on management” when revenues were high and automatic, workloads modest, TV dominant, creativity celebrated, brands growing, agencies respected, employees well-paid, parties outrageous and clients long-lasting? Creativity was the foundation of agency success, and to nourish creativity, management got out of the way, lest its intervention destroy the magic. “A creative agency needs to operate like an ant colony,” declared Kevin Roberts, former CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, “where every ant knows its job and has the freedom to do it. As long as we hire and inspire the right people, to do the right thing … our agency should grow and our creativity should flourish.” Continue reading

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“Creativity” Versus “Improved Results”: The Paradigm Needs to Change

Ad agencies and advertisers are victims of the belief that “creativity” is the basis of their current relationships, and that “more creativity” will give them more of what they need. Ad agencies have promoted “creativity” since the days of Bill Bernbach, more than 50 years ago, when agencies were at the top of their game. Advertisers, as their clients, continue to hire agencies for their perceived creativity, provided costs are rock bottom. However, “creativity” is no longer delivering improved brand performance or increasing shareholder value. The search for more creativity is making victims of agencies and CMOs alike — neither lasts very long in a relationship. It’s time for a new paradigm. The “Creative Paradigm” is out of date. It’s not working. Continue reading

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Ad Agencies are Just Like Cruise Ships

We don’t see many Big Ideas any more. Content may be king, but content is forgettable, millions of tiny ideas in a million different places. Can anything new be said about a product? Or an industry, like the advertising industry? Well, I’m not a creative — more like a dreaded management consultant. Nevertheless, here’s a cross-industry Big Idea, free for the asking: Ad agencies are just like cruise ships! Don’t dismiss this out of hand. Read on! Continue reading

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Agencies Struggle with Declining Prices

Since 1992, the average price for creative agency deliverables has declined by 70% in today’s dollars, according to my research [1] for Madison Avenue Manslaughter.
Nevertheless, agencies have managed to deliver growing profit margins for their owners throughout this 25-year period. How was this possible? Are agencies still “fat,” as many procurement executives believe, or have they starved themselves to generate profits in the face of declining prices? Continue reading

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