Insights From 20-Years Running An Ad Agency

Pictured above are a couple of libations my business partner Tony O’Haire, and I shared recently celebrating 20-years of leading an advertising agency.

They’re Manhattans–– old school madmen drinks, the appropriate cocktails for playing two decades in Don Draper’s game (without all the smoking and sex).

When we started Ames Scullin O’Haire Advertising, our name was also our employee list. We had no accounts, no business–– just an idea we could be a better agency for clients who believed the best work came from strategy, creative, and media working in unison with marketers, using empathy and creativity to connect with people.

Our philosophy was a zig when the business was zagging. 1997 was the age of specialization and globalization. Media separated from the agency mothership, as did other disciplines.

New profit centers were born!

Ad agencies were playing a game of Pac-Man–– they’d pop up, and many were soon gobbled by large holding companies.

Broadcast, print and direct ruled the day.

The internet was called cyberspace, and AOL installation discs were like “Star Trek” Tribbles–– somehow reproducing and popping up everywhere.

Social media happened in chat rooms. And yes, like today, there were lots of creeps lurking in the shadows of anonymity.

Google hadn’t begun yet (I had to Google its start date: September 4, 1998).

It was seven years before Facebook showed its face. Mark Zuckerberg was working on getting through puberty.

There was no DVR. People recorded shows on things called VHS tapes. There were Blockbuster stores all over the land, teeming with thousands of movies–– every movie you could imagine.

Except for the one you wanted to rent.

It was a different time, and fortunately, our personal approach to multiple disciplines working directly with clients had appeal. Our business grew fast, and we added smart, entrepreneurial people to our team.

Although much has changed over the past twenty years, some things haven’t. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Breaking up is hard to do. I have been amazed that clients will be loyal to agencies that nickel and dime them, abuse them, deliver bad service and work, and move at glacial speeds. Apparently, the fear of the unknown is more upsetting than the pain of the known.

ROI is the holy grail and all businesses feel the pressures or hitting quarterly numbers. Naturally, metrics and analytics are more important than ever, but they shouldn’t be the only factors in making decisions. They need analysis and context.

Media is ubiquitous. Messages are everywhere, space and time are portioned out and sold. We have more ways to reach people than ever, and we do. It’s a matter of time until someone monetizes death, selling space on coffin lids.

Creativity is more important than ever. Because people know the tricks advertisers play, you’d better find intriguing and interesting ways to get people to notice you and your message. Otherwise, you’re invisible.

Attention spans are condensing. Patience is in short supply. People are frazzled and distracted, making all communications hard as hell.

Speeds accelerate. Fast will only get faster still, and if your website needs time to load, don’t expect people to wait. They won’t.

There are more choices and more parity. Success breeds imitators. More competition means more confusion about product differences and why something is better than something else. Marketing messages become critical. You’d better have a reason to believe and buy.

Money isn’t worth your soul (unless you’re soulless). Horrible clients will kill morale, eat your innards and poison your agency’s culture. Fire bad clients, walk away and preserve your integrity.

Trust is everything. Marketing is still a relationship business, one where trust is critical. Trust must be earned every day. Once it’s gone, you’re a step closer to death. Be truthful, candid and trust-worthy.

Product loyalty rules. The best new customer is your current one. Keep them happy and know how to delight them. Build a tribe of advocates. Treasure them, always. That’s your insurance going forward.

Don’t surrender your brand to your audience. While customers are critical, you still need to engage them and give them reasons why your product is best for them. You cannot turn the voice of your brand over to them. They will have their say–– praising you or trashing you, but you need to maintain your voice and be a participant, not an idle bystander.

Narcissism is rampant. The result of living in front of screens is that it can turn each of us into a god. We select what we want to see, when we want to see it, the people in our lives (our tribes), our news feeds (creating our truth bubbles of like-minded points of view), activities and interests are only an app away, and anyone has the potential for fame if something he/she does on the internet goes viral. All of this self-centered control makes it easy to become egomaniacal and tune out the world. Is there anything sadder than seeing a family in a restaurant with each member staring at his/her smartphone? As a marketer, you must appreciate the mindset of your audience and the challenges you face.

Security is an illusion. Once, advertising was one of the few totally mercenary careers. We always knew our existence was predicated on the thin veneer of an account’s relationship with the agency. Now, that’s true of every business. They’re all mercenary. If a quarterly number must be made, bodies will fall. We’re all freelancers. Accept it, embrace it.

More for less only goes so far. While “more for less” is a command all businesses give their suppliers, know that eventually, physics take hold. Lower prices will eventually cost you. To quote Click & Clack of “Car Talk” radio fame, “The stingy man spends the most.” Don’t be stingy.

“No” is often your best defense. You must decide what you’re willing to do and for how little money you’re willing to do it. Someone will always do it for less. ALWAYS! Be fair and charge for the value you bring.

Covering your ass can be dangerous. Playing it safe is risky. Doing things only to maintain status quo often leads to failure. Not having a point of view will eventually convince people you’re adding nothing and are therefore expendable.

Stretch and experiment. One of the beautiful things about analytics is you have the chance to test different concepts and messages. Do so, be bold. Learn, adapt, create, repeat.

What you don’t do is often more important than what you do do. Because there are so many ways to reach people, and, potentially aggravate them, there are many ways to waste money. You need a smart plan and messages designed for your audience.

Fun is in short supply. Our business, all businesses, used to be much more fun. Today, unfortunately, people are overworked, stressed, nervous. That’s why it’s more important than ever to try and have some fun along the way. It’s not brain surgery (unless you’re a brain surgeon).

Meetings can kill progress. All too often, gathering a group of people is the quickest way to dull the edge of ideas, kill momentum, and grind progress to a halt. Only meet when essential, and with a clear and concise outcome expected.

The message is still king. Calling all work content belittles it. Churning out crap is still crap. Most digital films suck because there is no time limitation. What are you trying to say? Say it with some style, and get on with life.

We’re still talking to human beings. If you can’t bring compassion and empathy to your audience, you’re failing. Your first job is humanity. Don’t expect technology to have all the answers. Look within yourself. Once you surrender your humanity, rest assured technology will replace you.

I could go on, but I’ll respect your time and attention–– maybe you have a Manhattan waiting. Cheers, and thanks.