IAG’s Brent Smart calls for agencies to put more effort into current clients

“Think about when an agency pitches. Why don’t you do that for your current clients? You’re too busy doing it for your new clients, you don’t do it for your current clients. If my agencies put the effort they put into a pitch into my stuff, I could take that into my leadership at IAG. Game-changer. Have they once tried?”

Speaking at the Future of TV Advertising conference yesterday, IAG’s chief marketing officer, Brent Smart, told the audience that there’s a big difference between “servicing a client and leading a client. And I see it so rarely from agencies”.

“I pay my agencies for an opinion,” he said in an interview conducted by his media agency’s CEO, Mindshare’s Katie Rigg-Smith.

“The brief is not enough. The brief is the starting point, the brief is the bare minimum, the brief is what I’m asking you for. It’s not enough. You gotta bring me more than that.

“If all you’re doing is answering briefs, it’s a pretty transactional sort of relationship, no matter how good the response to that brief is.”

Smart and Rigg-Smith

Rigg-Smith noted that Smart had a shiny career in ad agencies before stepping into the CMO role. He was managing director of Colenso BBDO in Auckland, managing director of BBDO in San Francisco, and worldwide managing director, then CEO, of Saatchi & Saatchi New York.

Four years ago, he returned to Australia and took the IAG job. But “where my heart is in this job, is the ads”.

“The reason I left it was I was incredibly frustrated … I had to go and see all these marketers and it was so clear to me what the right thing to do for the brand was, and invariably, they wouldn’t do it,” he said to laughter.

“And I thought ‘What if I could be the guy sitting in the chair and making the decisions about this brand? You could set a vision for a brand and actually execute it the way I want to execute it’, which has been so liberating and unbelievable and makes every risk and compliance meeting in [an] insurance company worth it.”

But the hardest part of the role for any CMO is long-term brand building, he claimed. It requires patience, and boardroom backing.

“It’s so easy to focus on a whole bunch of short-term tactics that enable you to have a really great meeting with the boss on ROI. And it’s so easy, according to the quarterly earnings cycle that every major public company deals with, and it’s really hard to get a whole corporation to have the patience to let brand building do what it does, because you’re not going to say the pay off in the first quarter, you might not see it in the first year.

“We’re seeing it now from the work we did way back in the start of 2018 when we launched ‘Help’. And it builds upon itself and becomes an incredibly powerful cumulative effect when you build brands for the long term.

“But so few marketers either have the patience, the will, the support from their organisation to be able to do it.”

So how do you get that boardroom buy-in, Rigg-Smith asked? How do you convince the CEO and CFO to set their sights on the long game when budgets are trimmed? Smart is decisive: “You gotta earn it. You don’t just get it, you gotta earn it and the way you earn it is you do great work that moves the business.”

Creating “great work” means creating distinctive work, continued Smart, who “see[s] a lot of work that is super generic”. Think “real people telling real stories, probably with an acoustic version of a popular song, sung by a female, I could probably put any brand on the end of it, any bank, any telco, any insurance company, it’s all the same”.

“And so I think distinctiveness is finding something that is so true to your brand, so ownable, just stands out in the marketplace because if your work doesn’t brand … you’ve just wasted all that money.”

Smart also addressed agencies’ shortcomings when it comes to converting promising talent into strong leaders.

“The work we do on ourselves as leaders is actually the most important work,” he concluded.

“And agencies are shit at that, agencies are really shit at leadership and development and coaching and all the things that corporates are really, really good at.

“What I’ve learned in this role is I’ve learned to be a better leader, and I’ve learned much more about how to build teams. And I think I’ve learned much more about how to get the best out of people.”


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