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How Do Agencies Move Upstream?

7th September 10

Author: Griffin Farley, Strategy Director, BBH New York

Image Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

I have returned from the promise land, a place of myth and fable among ad agencies. We have many names for this place but I tend to call it… upstream.

It’s a question we as an industry often ask ourselves: “How can we get more upstream in our client’s business?” and this isn’t an uncommon theme here on the Labs blog (if you’re interested in reading some related material, check out Ben’s post So What Exactly Might Adaptive Brand Marketing Be? and Mel’s Marketing Mashup).

We’re just wrapping up a consulting project with a client where we had the opportunity to work more upstream than agencies typically work. We were asked to help a client develop an investor presentation that would allow them to raise funds to hire an ad agency. Before I get into that story I wanted to take a step back and share how agencies move upstream and what steps need to come first.

1. Moving from Execution to Strategy:

Having a dedicated strategic planning department is the first step. This isn’t as easy as it sounds for all agencies. Many agencies in smaller ad markets want to hire planners but struggle to find them. As an industry we have done a poor job training and cultivating young planners over the last 10 years, which I believe is the reason we have a shortage of Senior Planners in the States today.

The question inevitably comes up… Can we cross-train somebody to be our planner? I have worked with many strategic account managers and the biggest difference between an account manager and an account planner is the time planners get to think about strategy. It’s hard to be conceptual and strategic when your time is filled with other aspects of agency business like hounding the client to sign production estimates.

Being strategic by itself isn’t enough to hold your own as a planner. Schools like VCU and Miami Ad School help with this transition. They provide the fundamentals of research, moderation and creative inspiration. Some of the best cross-trained planners that I have met include Pam Scott who worked at Goodby years ago, and Laura Scobie who currently works at Fallon.

2. Moving from Strategy to R&D:

In the agency world we are told that meeting with the ad agency should be your clients best meeting of the week. However many brand managers might say meeting with the R&D folk makes the best meeting of the week. Some industries are more prone to employing brand managers that get excited about R&D than others. In my experience these categories include Toys, Consumer Package Goods, Casual Dining Restaurants and Technology to name a few.

Sometimes strategic and creative time is best spent thinking of new product or service innovations for clients. Ad agencies have developed amazing innovations for clients, and I think the best example of this is the Happy Meal for McDonalds. Just this week I heard CP+B is testing a new product for Kraft Mac and Cheese for the Grill.

3. Moving from R&D to Venture Capital:

Like I mentioned at the beginning, BBH Zag is helping a technology start-up develop an investor presentation. The goal of presentation is to raise a large sum of money that will allow them to hire an agency, be first to mass market and own this developing category.

Rarely do agencies get a chance to work this far upstream with a brand because the resource and time risk is too great. However, if agencies want to live in a world where ideas rule, there is no other place like venture capital. Understanding how to pitch an idea in 30 minutes or less, understanding what investors have to see and correctly size the marketplace for new market categories are unusual assignments for most agencies.

MIT has a program that teaches students how to pitch venture capitalists and if you do some searching on YouTube you’ll find videos that get students excited about the program like this one:

These are just a few thoughts. We don’t have all the solutions and would like to hear what you think: Do agencies belong upstream? Have we earned the right to be more than a vendor… to be a true client partner? Are we professional enough to make commercial recommendations? Do we demonstrate daily a habitual, deep-rooted interest in their business? Are there other ways for agencies to find themselves upstream?

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