Boxing fists up

10 Signs your agency wears the pants – at the cost of your brand

1.    Budgets blown and no time to respond

Have you heard your agency say ‘Sorry, we tried really hard to be on budget but the three quotes all came in above budget?’. Well, the truth of this claim is that this may mean they either didn’t write to the budget in the first place, that they are inviting suppliers that are out of the league of the budget to potentially conspire to justify the supplier they want to get the job.

They could be pushing the client’s decision-making so tight to the deadline that there is no time left to do anything but approve the costs, regardless if they are inflammatory. It is sometimes accidental or out of ignorance, but other times quite deliberate. Less experienced clients are totally unaware they are being exploited.

Using last year’s budget, or past projects as justification to support the costs of a totally different job in a totally different fiscal climate is flawed at best (and ultimately manipulative) playing on the fact that this is the only way a less educated client can measure budgets.

If your agency or suppliers can’t provide a full breakdown of all costs, either immediately or at least within 24 hours, then something is up. If the request for a breakdown just further impacts the deadline forcing approval without proper review, then this is the second sign that something is up.


·     Be sure you know what you are approving, and if not get an opinion from an expert (especially on the big ticket items) – you need someone as experienced, or more experienced, than the agency team. The agency team working on your project may not be as qualified or as experienced as you expect

·     Request a full breakdown and justification for all costs, from all suppliers, and expect a proper explanation. Be part of all decisions that impact the budget and creative approach, right down the supplier chain

·     Look deeper into supplier choices to be sure they are within the scale of the budget and not just the ‘flavour of the month’ suppliers

·     Set ample time in the schedule to properly understand the way the project is being executed and be sure it is actually what you need before approving

2.   Hiring their friends

What about that time that you weren’t given the photographer’s folio before approval? What about the time that the film director’s work on their reel is inadequate and nothing close to the standards expected for the project?  Did you even check?

If you blindly trust your agency without considering the suppliers further along the chain you may be in for a fall.

If there is no credibility in the work, then what is the real relationship with this supplier? If the work is not there, surely there is some other relationship? Is it friendship, industry kudos, hidden commissions, hidden ownership, cool factor….?


·     Insist on seeing the chosen specialists’ work and be sure it meets expectation

·     Review with your agency how they will be fixing the short falls and how to overcome the limitations and decide if it will be adequate

·     Request full disclosure of personal relationships with suppliers or hidden ownership and commissions

·     Check if the treatments or proposals are a genuine reflection of the work that has been done in the past, rather than take it on surface level (great treatments can be written by anyone and often production companies outsource treatment writing to ghost writers to help them get a job they wouldn’t normally get

3.   Jumping hierarchy to bypass those with experience

If your agency is bypassing those on your team who are experienced and who have the ability to reveal the flaws in the agency’s proposal/pitch it could well be the first symptom of manipulation, at the cost of the brand.

We’ve seen it many times where the management of each business schmooze and play the ‘boys club’ to sell ideas and budgets that are in the interest of the agency, and at the expense of the brand.

Senior people in the business are not always the most capable of making such detailed decisions and fall prey to manipulative agency staff, but sometimes well meaning but inadequate.

Many senior managers, and CMO’s often set a condition where their people can’t speak up and are silenced by that passive aggressive stare, or reprimand their team members after the meeting. If the marketing team is dead silent in discussions and presentations then something is amiss, and the team not able to share their genuine thoughts on the work.

I’ve seen so many clients sit silently when presented work, for fear of offending the creative. It creates such a false environment giving the power to the agency unrealistically. The agency takes the silence as a form of approval and can spend a lot of wasted time and head hours finessing work that is really not going to fly.


·     Allow the people in the team to have a voice and be accountable to the results

·     Get expert advice before making decisions – look first in your own team

·     Think more of your brand than you do of your agency, and protect it at all costs

·     Hire people that are willing to drive the brand and not just facilitate what the agency wants

·     Set a process for communication so that the layers of the team have a voice and can filter the work that is off brief before going up the line

·     Be clear about what you do like and don’t like so the agency doesn’t spend excessive time working up ideas that you wont use

4.   Flirting with the CMO to get their way

In a climate where gender equality is just starting to get traction, to see the agency personnel play the ‘flirt’ card seems so hard to imagine exists in this day and age.

Even if it isn’t so obvious as a ‘flirt’, but is purely pulling on the emotional heart strings to ‘please, please, please approve my baby creative concept’ then that is just as bad. This type of emotional ploy is not just a female trait sadly, and is manipulative – no matter how it is dressed up, and by whom.


·     Step back from the emotion and really evaluate if the concept or execution is right for the brand

·     Collect all the work up for the brand and see the overall visual palette and brand direction and really be sure it fits in with the brand code and brand values

·     Don’t build such a close relationship with the agency that you act like friends, at the cost of good sense for the brand

·     Don’t let the sensitivities of creative who are very attached to their idea get the better of you – cross check against your budget and your strategy (there are many ideas out there, not just that one)

5.    Brand is inconsistent

If you put the work up on one big wall and it doesn’t feel like it belongs to the one brand then something big is up. A reactive brand palette will be different every campaign and even within the one campaign if different across media channels.

The likely cause of this effect is the brand values have been forgotten and parked in some hidden folder on the server without cross checking regularly enough.

This often occurs when the creative brief moves between different creative teams and each team brings their own style, and even their own focus on award or folio pieces, at the expense of the brand.  The internal marketing team could also be moving the project around without consistency.

Is the agency playing with technique for their own fun and personal satisfaction, but drifting away from the brand palette or strategy?

A good agency will ensure the work can be identified as belonging to that brand, even if the logo is not on the page. The visual palette will be consistent; there will be visual, tonal and audio cues that hold the whole thing together.


·     Ensure the brand manifesto and guidelines are religiously cross checked every project

·     All creative teams briefed have access to the strategic work including the visual palette and language outlines

·     Find a supplier that cares about your brand more than they do about the design awards they enter

·     Have core team leaders for each project and don’t let them move it around to others

6.   Facilitating and not driving the brand

The internal team on your brand needs to be charged with the full responsibility of driving the brand, being accountable to the strategy, and ensuring that the gaps in strategy are closed and not just to facilitate what the agency wants.

If the marketing team don’t have a clear picture of the target audience by product, don’t understand the unique proposition of the brand and products and rely solely on the agency, then they are just facilitating the agency and suppliers’ whim.

Marketing teams need to step out of just getting stuff done and making sure it all fits in the overall strategy, and is accountable for getting the results.


·     Have a clear profile of each target audience summarised on one or two pages and distribute widely

·     Have a clear brand strategy that includes tone and visual palette, and then use it every job

·     Make this tonal strategy part of the brief as a mandatory and don’t just assume everyone knows it

7.   Pushing you against the wall in timing of approvals

Does ‘We need your approval by 11am today’ or ‘If you don’t approve this now we wont make the deadline’ ring true with anyone?

If the schedule does not allow ample time for the marketing team to really evaluate the work, to cross check with the brief and to review fully with the internal stakeholders (including the strategy team) then you are likely to be pushed into approving something that is off brief, or worse – off brand.

If the urgency is a real thing and not just to accommodate excessive agency time for their part of the project, then at least having advance notice to co-ordinate all stakeholders is a must.

Urgent time frames push the marketing team into having to have all the team in the one room at the one time, which in may teams just stifles the voice of those with experience (remember point 3 above?).

Another symptom of this is that where detailed documentation is only delivered within a few minutes of the conference call or meeting, giving no time to absorb the details and have any proper input. Backed against a wall.


·     Plan well ahead for all projects and request full visibility of the milestones before approving the job

·     Book any urgent approvals ahead of time

·     Be clear on what time you need for approvals at each stage

·     Have a respectful process where the project owners have a chance to be sure the brief is met before moving up the chain of command (especially in those organisations where the lower levels have the most experience and qualifications)

8.   Forgetting their own strategy

Yes, I did mention this above, but this is so important. A good strategy drives all decisions and without it the brand flops around inconsistently. The whim of the moment, either from the team working on the job, or trends of the time takes over.

Strategy is often deeper than some CMO’s and marketing teams expect too, and goes beyond a design guideline, business history and values too. Most of all it is important to change the perspective from what the business does, to what the customer needs and you’ll start to have a consistent strategy – that works.


·     Review all your strategic documents and rework them to be from the perspective of the target audience

·     Accept that your target audience is NOT just those people that currently buy your products now, but who are your potential customer

·     Add a lens to everything you do to see if the brush of masculinity still resides in your decisions – when it should be more gender neutral and more about ‘Us’ (potentially)

·     Do your target audience profiles from your researcher, agency, media strategists, planners and internal strategy teams align, exactly? If not, then ask some robust questions and workshop to have a clear and unified picture

·     Widely share your strategy, right down to the suppliers that work on the business – and keep them accountable to it

·     Create a one page brand blueprint that summaries the brand strategy

9.   Charging excessive time for head hours and using time sheets as the measure of value – rather than the actual time it needs

If your agency says to you that they have been spending a lot of time on your business and therefore need to charge more, then you may be paying for a poor process and even, sometimes, proactive activities that you don’t need and maybe even don’t serve the brand.

Gone are the days where creatives can justify sitting in dark rooms for days on end and charge for the privilege. At the very least they will be multi-tasking and paying attention only when required. If they are watching over every minuscule decision by an editor, film director, or photographer then the brief is inadequate or the supplier is running their own show.

Head hour charges on major projects can be a home to recoup internal over-runs and write offs. Past over-runs are not a justification for adding extra hours to the budget at hand.

If you have 20 people in a room, at (probably) a minimum of around $200 each and it goes for two hours, then evaluate if that meeting was really worth $8000.

Many film industry suppliers believe that the agency just make their costs inflated and would be more efficient without them. There is some truth in this, but also some essential milestones an agency is required.

Do you have all levels of creative and account management attending meetings at the same time? Are they really necessary?

Unsuspecting clients think that the agency’s vehement fight to keep the head hours in the budget make it a real cost to the job. The agency may well have spent the time on the job, but the client should not be paying for the inefficiencies of the agency process, their need to have multiple people attend a meeting ‘just in case’, nor getting the brief wrong many times over.


·     Have a clear understanding of the actual time projects should cost

·     Ask for a full breakdown of how the time will be spent before blindly approving it

·     Review how many double ups there are in charging

·     Don’t compare to past projects as your only measure of appropriate head hours

·     Review how many people really need to be in the meetings

·     Don’t allow multiple people to be touching the work at every step of the way and rationalise the process

·     Establish test grades and reference frames to set a look for the suppliers to follow without out

·     Ensure proper minutes are kept to reduce the number of meeting attendees

·     Review work via FTP regularly rather than sit in the room all day

·     Consider a flat menu of head hours for certain regular projects

·     Move from the retainer model to an output/deliverables model

·     Look at each meeting and count up the head hour cost and determine if you get the value out of the meetings

10. Saying ‘All the best people are using them’

Could this be the most unethical statement of all? Choosing suppliers based on who is the latest fad, or the coolest kids on the block, is absolutely no reason for selection, particularly at the expense of the budget and the brand values.

Many suppliers are chosen simply for awards won and not on talent or ability to meet the brief to get results. There is a direct correlation to award winning work being effective, but we need to be sure a decision like this is not at the expense of the brand; and it is a conscious decision with the right outcome.

It isn’t true that the best work costs more. There is no question that some of the best talent do charge a premium and there are certainly occasions where it is warranted, but I can guarantee that it often isn’t even a conscious consideration with many creatives and producers defaulted to choose the ‘cool kids’ at the expense of the business objectives for the brand, and they are not even aware that they have control over their budget in this way.

The best work shines because the idea is great, and is on strategy, and certainly not because the ‘coolest’ photographer did the job with the latest colour grading technique or camera style; or worse because they hang out at the best parties.

There is such a thing as A List, B List (and below) for creative suppliers and they often draw a budget level accordingly. Like a luxury handbag there are the prestige brands, the quality but not out of reach brands too, the affordable but quality look-a-likes and, yes; there are the down right cheap and nasty options too (and we don’t want those if we can help it unless the brand relies on it to communicate cheap). Depending on the job at hand, you can have a successful execution for your brand that doesn’t require the investment of the label, with the fancy reputation alone.

It must be a conscious balance that needs to be done with an experienced team that know what is needed, and knows where to draw the line on excesses.


·     Request that briefs sent to suppliers that are within scope of the budget and compare against budget from the ‘cool kids’ to consciously understand the value between the two before approving

·     Suppliers in the mix to fit the brand’s position in the market and can deliver on strategy in every way

·     If the agency wants to break the budget, then have at least one candidate that meets budget and is capable of the result for consideration

·     If there is a look and feel you want from suppliers, then consider other ways to achieve it with better briefing and configuring the team in a cost effective way

·     Have people on the team that are experienced enough to know when there is wastage, and don’t just default to the ‘name brands’ or ‘cool kids’ and don’t know any better

Wasting precious marketing budgets, being off strategy and off brand needs to stop.  These are just a few of the red flags that are symptoms of suppliers exploiting unsuspecting brands.