Death by iteration: no end in sight for ad agencies

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A recent blog post by the immensely talented and insightful Tom Fishburne on the process of creative reviews touched a chord. The article went on to say: most talented designers in the world will create mediocre work if the creative review process is managed in a mediocre way; breakthrough creative only starts when we treat our creative partners as partners.

Almost everyone who has ever worked in an ad agency, especially those in account management, planning and creative have been subjected to an iterative process of creative development. Its bad news for all concerned, affects the output negatively and is actually a waste of money. Yet the problem is not even recognised and addressed by the industry folk.

The process is something like this: a brand team briefs an agency team (via planners & account management folks or directly to the creative team) who then reverts with their approach & recommendations. The presentation happens to the brand team who are usually not the final decision makers. They only have the power to say ‘no’ – they don’t have the power to say ‘yes’ and run the creative they have chosen. After such a meeting, the brand team reacts to the creative (feedback is the wrong word) and the reaction could be anything from a vague response (‘this is no fun’) to a mighty specific one – ‘change the guy in car to a guy in bicycle’ variety. A common underlying principle in such meetings is that the brand team will second-guess what their bosses will like. After a few such iterative meetings, the final meeting with the boss is set up. At that meeting, the brand manager & agency teams reiterate the brief and the approach respectively. Chances are the client-in-chief may completely disagree with the brief and the role of communication. He or she may also have strong views on how the message must be conveyed. Net result: the creative team has a fresh brief to work on after weeks of working on the same project.

The effect on the morale of the team and the quality of output can be devastating. A senior creative once told me that while the creative team’s motivation levels are 100% when the project (especially an interesting or challenging one) is afresh it progressively wanes with iterations. After the first iteration, their enthusiasm may drop to 90% and after the second iteration may drop to 80% (which is still not bad). But after the fourth iteration, the enthusiasm levels drop dramatically to 20% or so – the drop is not a steady mathematical progression through the iterations.

The problem is compounded if the account head or the agency team is unable to seize the situation and put an end to the madness because they live in fear of the client. The fear could arise from lack of self confidence to fear of losing the account. It is plain to see that getting it right the first time around and minimising iterations is an efficient way of working but hardly gets practiced.

All said, there still are some forward thinking companies which eliminate such unproductive practices. A well know Indian FMCG brand is known to work with its ad agencies in true partnership: creative presentations straight with the MD (who is hands on with brand’s advertising), approval (or not) in one go and no pre-production meetings (PPMs) once the film script is approved (their belief is that the agency is the expert on matters like film production, model selection etc., and the client does not add much value addition.

We can say with certainty that iterative process with ad agencies will continue, for several reasons. Herewith some:

Creative output as tool to clarify or refine strategy: ‘this is not what we want to say!’ an inner voice often speaks up in the brand manager’s heart reacting to what has been presented in round one.

Ad agency as vendor mentality: the ‘agency as true business parter’ days are long gone. The most prevailing mentality is that of a vendor – a ‘creative services for hire’ kind of attitude. The reason-why is complicated and could be a subject of another blog post. Freshly minted MBA brand managers are also not given any induction on how to get the best out of agency teams.

Large teams, vague roles: large teams at client companies (with brand teams for categories & sub-categories) means many levels of briefing, presentation, iteration and so on. Roles at each level can get blurred in such cases. The client company may also want to ’empower’ (truly or otherwise) to take big decisions when it comes to brand marketing & communication. Agency teams may also suffer from this problem of blurred roles with AE, Sr. AE, Account Supervisor, Group Head and Account Director etc., as part of an account.

Lack of a clear pathway to output: the ideal client-agency relationship may be that of equal partners but the tacit rule is that the client becomes the senior partner – as he gets to finally decide how his monies will be spent. If the client sets a clear pathway to the process: from briefing formats (written briefs only, no telephone requests), timeline for presentation and ensures that the decision maker is involved in every step of the way, a lot the heartburn pertaining to iterations may be resolved. Sure the agency too can initiate such a process but the onus is more on the client.

Inability to say no: the ad agency has lost the ability to say ‘no’ to impossible deadlines, vague briefs, poor brand strategy and so on. This is reflected in the process of creating campaigns after campaigns for a so-called strategy which is like a permanent moving goal post. It will not be uncommon to see 30-50 TV scripts developed before one is finalised. The root cause – changed client-agency relationships, fear of losing the business, lack of investments in the client-agency relationship at the right levels and so on.

The bottom line: for ad agencies, the scenario is unlikely to change in the near future.

Do share your thoughts.

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  1. Frustrated Ad Guy Reply

    Sir, we need more people like you in advertising. Not outside it. Advertising has gone to the dogs. No wonder clients treat us like s**t. Agreed, clients are to be blamed too, but the quality of people in advertising has depreciated over the years. Talk to any young account servicing/creative person and all you will spot is arrogance (which is a result of ignorance and incompetence). And then digital is making everyone’s life miserable. Not because ad folks don’t understand it, but because it has become a game of numbers. Clients want numbers! So it is out of necessity that we have to bring in better people to this business to survive. We need people who can stand their ground, come up with/sell great ideas and are knowledgeable. The numbers will follow.

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