Wednesday, February 7th, 2007...

How Your Ad Agency is Sabotaging Your Campaign

It’s your campaign, you know.

You. The Client.

Sure, you’re hiring an agency to direct it, but YOU are paying for it. It belongs to you. Or even more precisely, it belongs to your brand. The ad agency is like the au pair you hire to make sure your baby gets the best care. It also happens to be an au pair that hopes to win awards for its stellar child-rearing, so it’s your job to understand the difference between sheer showmanship and actual skillfulness. It’s the difference between a successful campaign and sabotage.

There are several ways a campaign could fail. There is the once-in-a-blue-moon freak promotional accident, there are the disappointing occasions when some people take things way too seriously, and then there are the much less overt sort of failures, the kind that don’t even let you take advantage of all publicity being good publicity….

Sometimes an ad fails because it’s simply irrelevant. Because it didn’t find the right audience, because it missed the mark on how to communicate its message, or because it didn’t really understand who it was talking to in the first place. A bad advertising strategy won’t make national headlines, but this subtle failure will discredit your brand’s reputation, and it will convince an audience that your message or brand isn’t for them.

You’re counting on your agency to get you exposure; you’re not expecting it’ll make your brand lame in the process!

So what can you do to avoid this silent sabotage?

Well, to start, here are a few things you should understand about what matters in the process of choosing an agency, assessing its work, and understanding the measurements of your campaign’s effectiveness.

1. The ‘Creative’ shouldn’t happen before the Research

Before there’s a contract, all the agency wants is to convince you that they will deliver the most creative, most original campaign. They may even go to astounding lengths to prove their unparalleled creativity, but how many of their unbillable hours go into research? Enough to be certain that the message they are developing is going to be relevant and effective? It may be a creative concept like no other, but does the agency know the campaign they’re pitching is going to actually speak to your audience in their own language? Will it approach them on their terms? It may resonate with the hipster designers coming up with the creative, but not all consumers are made the same….So do they understand who yours are? Does your ad agency know what drives their culture, and how they express their identities? Can their pitch impress you with non-speculative revelations about your brand’s audience that you may not have even considered before?

It should.

The greatest disservice an agency can do to your campaign is sell you on creative without doing their homework first, because they are then bound to deliver what you bought even if its efficacy is questionable, at best. Worse still, any data will need to be skewed to corroborate the agency’s efforts. By selling the creative ahead of the research they are not only doing a disservice to your audience, they are doing a disservice to your understanding of your own audience.

2. There’s gotta be some ‘Creative’ left over for the Media Plan

Half the joke is in the delivery. And it’s half the ad too. Relying on a generic media plan belies a lack of understanding about, or even indifference to your users’ identity, and exposure without a targeted strategy should only even be considered by a very particular kind of brand–unless you’re buying Super Bowl ads, it’s not your brand.

Does your agency understand how and where to access your target audience, and the various subtleties and patterns inherent in the ways your target audience interacts with different marketing channels? Developing relevant and original communications strategies within the current marketing landscape is not about whether you buy ad-space in Filter vs. Vapors, whether you should build a microsite, which keywords to buy, and it’s certainly not about trying to make some video go “viral.” A campaign is no longer limited to being simply printed, broadcast, or even forwarded, it should be embedded. From Red Bull partnering with sub-culture creatives to produce a platform for Ascension from the underground, to Scion planting its car as the coolest item one can “buy” on the popular Tween online community Whyville, an authentic, relevant strategy plays an integral part in defining the message’s form and function.

The niche-ing of all media, multiplied exponentially by the variety of interactive opportunities makes the process of disseminating the message a lot trickier, but the payoff is that it can also make the message itself a whole lot stickier. Knowing how your consumers’ identities shape their interactions with your marketing approaches can be leveraged towards navigating the most important emergent medium: Culture. (Were you expecting the Internet?)

3. The Great User-Generated Content Divide

The average cost of a 30-second TV ad, including production and airtime costs, can run $500,000 to $1 million. Consumer-generated campaigns can cost just a few thousand dollars. So which amount do you think your Agency’s hoping you’ll write a check for?

User-generated content means audience engagement, message relevancy (if it’s not you’ll hear about it right away), authentic endorsement, and even the enablement of culture and identity expression. You should be excited. This is all pretty awesome stuff! But if consumers are making the “ads” for free, then how does the agency validate its cost? There’s a bit of a conflict of interest going on, for sure. Conveniently for you, a cottage industry of startups has emerged to help companies create and manage user-generated content for consumer contests and community input.

Your agency’s validation should lie in precisely this kind of interaction creation and management service. If the campaign concept does not include a function as a framework for enabling user engagement, it is effectively turning your audience away at the door when they arrive.

4. Traffic is not a useful Success Metric

If your site or ad was an art exhibit it would matter how many people were coming by to take a look. Manipulating an audience towards your site for a traffic spike is not that complicated, and it’ll let your agency produce some acceptable statistics for progress reports, but if the audience isn’t getting involved then the traffic doesn’t mean all that much.

Engagement does. From click-thrus, to subscription rates, to form submissions, the measures of a campaign’s success are revealed through audience interaction patterns. Integrated analytics are even better. For example, integrating analytis from an email campaign with site statistics allows not only for a much better indication of a campaign’s success, but grants greater insight into user behavior, which, in turn, will help develop more relevant communication.

Success metrics should be established in advance, but need to remain flexible enough to accomodate change as the campaign evolves. One of the greatest advantages of maintaining this kind of malleability is that it will allow your campaign to “self-correct.” Your community will tell you when you’re missing the mark if empowered with the tools to do so. At the end of the day the more positive the customer experience, the better a return rate you’re going to see.

 

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Employing a meaningful, integrated strategy that allows you to measure and capitalize on the interplay between all the various marketing channels at your disposal is like playing pinball with a highly developed understanding of physics. The way that the ball reacts and moves from one side to another is the same way a consumer traverses your promotional terrain from interaction to interaction. What you don’t want is for your agency to show up, pull the plunger, and bang mercilessly on the side of the machine hoping to thwart the laws of physics by sheer force.

Agencies know they need to change, they just can’t figure out how. Half the problem is they’re so stuck in doing things the way they always have that their approach to new options is still, unfortunately, through the same old processes (uploading a TV spot to You-Tube, anyone?) The other half of the problem is that somehow along the way they’ve become convinced the campaign is theirs, and this sense of entitlement is keeping them from being curious or diligent enough to develop the kind of relevant and original communications solutions that are called for not only by today’s media realities, but by your brand.

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