Are agencies behaving badly?

A couple of things have happened recently that might appear to put agencies in a bad light.

Firstly, we had Jonathan Stead in Campaign somewhat brazenly announcing a new Rapier, whilst the body of the old one, hurriedly buried along with its creditors, was still warm.

And then Will Harris took to Marketing Magazine to moan about profligate agency staff taking taxis when they should be on bicycles, like him.

It’s as if, with these two completely separate incidents, we’re being accused of  learning nothing from the excesses and outrages of the 80s and 90s.

I may be biased, but I see precious little evidence of conspicuous excess in agencies these days. I do see a lot of bright people, working very hard, often for salaries that don’t match their clients’. I don’t see large, extravagant offices or many signs of profligacy.

If there is fat, it probably lies in the labyrinthine layers of senior management so beloved by international groups – people who fly around ‘EMEA’ going to meetings that never decide anything nor relate to a client’s business.

As for the Rapier situation, Jonathan Stead would appear, prima facie, to be guilty of little more than a lack of self-awareness and a degree of insensitivity. Businesses do go bust…it can happen to anyone. I’m sure Jonathan did everything he could to avoid it.

However, I’ve no idea which creditors or staff are likely to lose out as a result of Rapier’s administration, but if it were me, I’d probably have kept my head down for a bit – especially if it had been revealed I’d taken £2.9m out of the company just a couple of years previously. Whatever may have happened, it doesn’t look good.

Personally, I think these two cases are pretty small beer in the great scheme of things and certainly not unique to agencies. From banks to big charities you can point to super-egos who are indulging themselves flamboyantly.

The real concern must be that so many agencies are struggling to make any money at all. Margins have been squeezed and expectations on costs and timings (especially with regard to all things digital) have added to that pressure. Investment in skills and training is not what it was. Service levels are suffering as clients switch to ‘project by project’ contracts. That’s what we should be addressing. Maybe there is over-supply? But compared to a few years back it is a pretty buttoned-down world.

We’re still not perfect, but the vast majority I meet work hard and conscientiously for market rate salaries in an industry with precious little security. Do you agree?

  • Elisa Harca

    Hi, Chris – I think there are cases of bad behaviour on both sides of the fence. However, particularly on the subject of bad behaviour, I think the topic of concern for us agency folk right
    now is ethics. Without naming names, I have noticed that 2012 has been a year of mis-briefs, pulled briefs, faux pitches, more so than ever before. I believe this to be a result of increasing pressure of the marketing department needing to show ROI, and almost a trend towards ‘bottling it’ under pressure and going for a safe option or no option. What we, on both sides, need to do is work together more closely to look at how marketing strategies can deliver genuine results, which in turn will hopefully make the ‘pitching’ process less painful and fruitless on both sides, and unduly costly on the agency’s side.


      I agree. I’ve spoken to a number of agency heads this year who have mentioned clients with an exciting £50k campaign….that then becomes a £15k campaign,,,that is then put on hold for 6 months….and is then canned. ROI is getting increasingly hard to demonstrate and the confidence required to do something brave (on both sides) is often not there. Maybe as agencies we need to be more confident to propose radical solutions and accept that some clients will say “no”. Hard to do when business is tough, but in the long term the right solution.

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