What if we asked clients to adopt the project-by-project model they want from us?

We all know that agencies need to adjust to a post-retainer world. And the pressure to work on a project-by-project basis is only becoming greater. But how would that model hold up if we asked our clients’ marketing departments to do the same, asks DDB's Priya Patel.

The conversation around delivering cost efficiencies, being nimbler and potentially working on a project-by-project basis is something every agency needs to wrestle with.

Most of us are acutely aware of the perils of being labelled ‘big, slow, expensive – a global monster’ and are actively taking steps to ensure that isn’t a reality.

The Great Marketing Divide seems to exist around those who believe in the long-term – the power of a brand to drive growth over time – versus those who see the power of short-term activation and targeted conversion as the main way to drive sales.

The ideal, for us at DDB, is a 60:40 brand:activation ratio. But, in order to deliver that, we need to build for the long-term.

Great creativity is only a product of great people. And human beings aren’t so different – wonderful challenges, recognition, fair rewards and respectful interactions would rank pretty highly on most people’s list of what it takes to have a ‘decent job’.

And so, my thought experiment was simple: what if clients applied the same model they see as so effective for agencies to their own marketing teams?

Let’s imagine the CEO wakes up worried one day. She’s not sure her marketing team is working as cost effectively as possible. She views them as a large overhead and, if she’s honest, she doesn’t know what everyone on the team does.

But she likes her CMO, so suggests they move to a freelance model. She believes this will allow the CMO to bring in who they need on a project-by-project basis and be more cost efficient.

It makes sense on paper and the CMO agrees to trial the new model. The next time the CEO has a request, all the CMO has to do is:

Assemble a perfect team. The entire project window is just a few weeks, so he has a few days to get in who he needs. Due to the tight turnaround, they need to drop anything else they might be working on and concentrate solely on this project. He needs to find people who are the very best in their field, and who are able to work together instantly and seamlessly. And, obviously, they need to work fast.

From day one they need to thoroughly understand the business and market context and quickly define the opportunity for the brand. Next, they work solidly for a couple of weeks – sacrificing all prior obligations (personal or professional) to come up with a completely unique, never-been-seen-before idea, with robust evidence that it can deliver a business outcome.

They then have to persuade the CEO and board that the idea is brilliant (which is a bit tricky as the CEO doesn’t actually know or trust any of the people presenting the idea). Once they have the green light, they need to produce and implement it in a truly new and innovative way – the production and media spend is necessarily low.

For this effort, the CMO can only afford to pay his team an industry average rate – this is a cost saving exercise after all.

At the end of six weeks, the CEO is really pleased with the outcome and its impact on the business. She says thanks and reassures the team that she’ll let them know if and when anything else comes up. Until then, they can just ‘hold tight’.

The marketing team feels demoralised, like a disposable resource. On an individual level they don’t feel like it’s worth their time and personal sacrifice. Nor can they see any future growth. Collectively, while they may have cracked it once, they certainly don’t feel like have the time or energy to arrive at a similar ‘quality, fast and effective’ answer the next five times it’s required.

If the model sounds untenable within a client’s own organisation, is it really reasonable to expect agencies to deliver it?

Perhaps treating agencies like value-adding partners by either committing to them long term (which allows the agency a shot at managing their own staff costs and profitability), or paying them generously (for delivering value in the face of uncertainty) are more reasonable and mutually equitable options?

Agencies are very aware they have to get faster, while maintaining quality and offering great value, but they can only do that in true partnership environments, with clients that acknowledge and appreciate the human beings that lie at the heart of any business.

Priya Patel is the Sydney managing director at DDB


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