By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

What is the primary reason agencies don’t deliver more innovative solutions for their clients?  Lack of talent?  Lack of time?  In my experience, the latter is much more of a factor than the former.

Most successful agencies have some pretty smart people.  What most agencies don’t have is a commitment to breakthrough work.   They don’t have in place incentives that reward and encourage collaboration and innovative, interdisciplinary problem solving.  In fact, most firms have clear disincentives for teamwork; which is a curious irony for an industry that sells “creativity.”

As a result, production or project managers develop conservative “estimates” of time on a project to keep clients (and account managers) happy; account managers involve as few people as possible in an effort to stay “under estimate;” other team members ranging from account planning to creative are fearful of logging too many hours against a problem or project; and accounting reprimands team leaders if time gets “cancelled” or written off.

How can we possibly expect out-of-the-box, collaborative problem solving when the internal incentives are all oriented around controlling time?

Incentives matter

Many of the bright minds in business agree that if you want to understand the culture of a company, just look at its internal incentives.  It should be no surprise that in most internal agency surveys, agencies give themselves low ratings in the area of “internal collaboration.”  Of greater concern is that surveys of clients often show the same result.  In a study Ignition did for the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies, there was a significant gap between the importance of internal agency collaboration and the actual performance of agencies on this dimension:

“Ensuring that agency disciplines and functions are integrated and that agency teams and divisions collaborate well on behalf of the client.”

Rating by clients on a scale of 1 to 10

  • This dimension of agency activity adds value to a client’s business:  9.17
  • Agencies generally perform well on this dimension: 5.97

Understanding what you really sell

Deep down inside, every agency professional inherently knows that clients don’t really buy our hours – they buy the solution to a problem.  It’s no different when you take your car to the dealer when the “check engine” light comes on.  Buyers of services – especially professional services – want an effective solution to a problem.

Solutions are produced not by hours, but rather by knowledge and expertise.  Agency managers must stop sending mixed messages to their teams.  You can’t obsess about “billable time” on the one hand and expect proactive collaboration on the other.  If you agree that two heads are better than one, you should encourage – not discourage – many heads coming together.

Game changing ideas can not only transform your client’s business, they can transform your agency’s business as well.  No agency ever became famous by “coming in under estimate.”