Derek Robson On Agency Evolution

Derek Robson of Goodby, Silverstein and Partners presented “Agency Evolution” at an Ad Fed MN breakfast series event on November 10th. It was fascinating and informative. It really resonated with me given the types of things I am currently working on at Colle+McVoy and how we’re adapting and evolving. I had pen to paper almost the entire time, increasing the possibility of me getting something interesting worth sharing with all of you. I’ve summarized what I learned below, with sprinklings of my personal perspective thrown in.

Fear of Irrelevancy

All agencies and marketers fear their organizations and jobs are at risk of becoming irrelevant given the real-time changes we’re experiencing in the marketing communications world. When Derek got to Goodby, Rich Silverstein’s number one objective was to remain relevant. Relevancy is a sophisticated matter, but agencies need to at least be caught up with culture in order for their work to remain relevant. Ideally, we’re one or two steps ahead of culture and creating solutions to problems people aren’t even aware of yet.

Perception is Reality

Derek immediately self-assigned himself the job of figuring out what people’s perceptions were of Goodby. In order to formulate existing perceptions of the agency’s brand, Derek reached out to hundreds of people, including employees, search consultants, clients and the trade media. The first significant issue Derek surfaced was that there was a dramatic difference between what people thought about Goodby versus what they were actually doing. People outside the agency thought of them only as a shop that was really good at producing kick-ass TV spots. The reality was that Goodby had just been recognized as The One Show Digital Agency of the Year. The gap between perception and reality was significant and Derek convinced the leadership team to hire an outside PR firm to address this. Once this was done, the agency put together their own communications strategy to combat the old-school perception hanging on to their brand.

Derek’s main point here was that agency’s need to step outside and look at how people on the outside are looking at their agency. I couldn’t agree more. As agencies, we spend so much time thinking about our client’s brands that we oftentimes forget about our own. In an attempt to quiet the lizard brains influencing Colle+McVoy, I’ve set out to do something similar to what Derek did. Starting about a month ago, we decided it was time to redefine the Colle+McVoy interactive experience. We’ve been collecting feedback from employees, clients, search consultants and others in attempt to Help Colle+McVoy Be More Awesome in 2011. Would love your feedback.

“Crispin Envy”

The second significant issue Derek noticed was that Goodby “had Crispin envy.” More specifically, he talked about how Rich Silverstein was constantly distracted with what Crispin Porter + Bogusky was doing, or what they might do. This made people nervous and wonder why. The bigger issue was that Goodby did not have a single mission or vision and leaders of the agency began to latch on to what other successful agencies were doing in the interim. Recognizing this could be the demise of Goodby, Derek partnered with leadership to define their purpose and gradually helped the agency redefine themselves from the inside out.

Shiny object syndrome at its finest. It happens all the time. Just when people are not comfortable with the ideas or solutions they’ve come up with, they lose strategic vision and hop into the tactical weeds of anything and everything. STOP. Take a step back and a deep breath. Focus. Think about what’s best for your business, not what’s working for someone else’s. It’s hard for agencies to do this. We’re good at a lot of things, which oftentimes works against us. But it shouldn’t be about being good at a lot of things; it should be about being better (or the best) at a few things. By crafting a mission and vision people can get behind, you’ll stop being envious of other agencies and other agencies will start envying yours. Most importantly, your agency will have a better understanding of what it does and doesn’t do. Which then allows you to hire the right people for the right job with the right backgrounds. The overall happiness of the agency goes up, along with the work it produces. It’s all starting to make sense, isn’t it?

Efficient Hybrid Creatives

Derek argued the creative department must be the most efficient department at the agency. He even went as far as sharing a simple calculation he came up with to demonstrate just how productive (or not) individuals within the creative department were at Goodby. It looked something like this:

Ideas Generated and Produced X Ideas Generated and Not Produced = Hit Rate (%)

Creatives with less than a 30% hit rate were in jeopardy of losing their job. And many did. Since Derek’s arrival at Goodby, he guessed 75% of the entire agency staff has turned over.

Derek is an advocate of hybrid creatives. However, he doesn’t believe a creative can be a hybrid just because he or she wants to be. They need to be trained in to being a hybrid creative. To allow for this, Goodby pairs all traditional Art Directors and Copywriters with Interactive Art Directors and Copywriters. No project is an exception.

Whoa. Would love to hear thoughts from the creative peeps on this stuff.

Strategy As One

The summary of Derek’s main point on a slide was, “People engage with ideas, not channels. Ideas drive channel behavior.” Knowing this was Derek’s philosophy, he championed and facilitated the merger of the brand and media strategists into one group. Collectively, they work to bring consumer insights to the forefront of brand and marketing communications strategies for their clients.

I like this approach, Facebook style. With a caveat though. In order for this to work, an agency needs to have the wherewithal to make the organizational changes necessary to support this philosophy. Having Account / Brand Planning and Media as separate departments seems to be more of the norm than the exception (I realize this doesn’t make it right). Add the complexities of interactive to the mix and you’ve got quite a cluster on your hands. And if you do make your way through the organizational change, the even more challenging aspect of it all is finding the right people. The right people that can develop the right strategies and ideas, channel agnostically. Not as easy as it sounds.

Derek closed by quoting Tom Kelley, General Manager of IDEO. “Creative firms of all kinds know that they need to evolve at least as fast as the world is changing around them.” This presents an opportunity for all agencies. The agencies of the future may not be the agencies that have dominated the past. It levels the playing field.

What is your agency doing to take advantage of this opportunity?

Updated November 15th at 9:20am

Thank you George Nimeh for directing me to the slides from Derek's presentation. The deck is from April, but seems to be close to what I saw.