About twelve years ago a creative director at a major creative shop said to me, “We’re not here to give the client what they want. We’re here to give them what they need.” Paraphrasing, but that’s darn close to the actual quote.
And you know what? He was right. Nothing personal, clients, but 10-15 years ago you were no way near as equipped as you are today. Having an MBA was rare. Having an in-house research department was even rarer. Having an in-house agency was rarer still, and, worse, was thought of as a sign of financial weakness, not marketing strength.
As a result, agencies had much more power in the agency/client relationship. Particularly when agencies had brand planning to provide the insights and strategic air-cover to defend their ideas. Agencies were far more likely to posture, apply pressure and stay strong when it came to defending what they thought were great ideas. And good for them for fighting the good fight, because clients were essentially defenseless then, left only to their often ill-informed guts for important creative decisions. The posturing was necessary for the sake of the brand.
But times have changed. Clients have never been smarter, more creative, more educated or with more resources at their internal-disposal. Most clients these days have McKinsey-level research departments, innovation departments, even creative departments inside their in-house agencies. Look no further than the establishment of the In-House Agency Forum. In-house agencies are even organizing themselves and helping each other to stay in-house without sacrificing their marketing effectiveness.
Meanwhile, agencies have tried to escalate the war over insights. On one front, they’re installing their own McKinsey-like business insights groups as an overlay to the already-established brand planning (consumer insights) groups. On another front, they’re adding multi-cultural insights. On another, global. And some are even branding their insights groups to give it added cache. All in an attempt to equal or exceed the client’s own resources in the battle over insights.
It’s an Insights Cold War.
Well, I can tell you one thing. Clients are not going to stop getting smarter. Nor should they. Which leaves agencies with an important decision: do we continue to escalate the Insights Cold War, or do we embrace the client’s existing resources and stick to what we do best, ideas?
You probably know where I’m going to come out on this, but I’ll state the obvious anyway. Why not start trusting the insights, smarts and abilities of their clients to help drive the strategic process? To reject these resources out-of-hand is arrogant, creates redundancies and is financially reckless. Don’t even get me started on the “Time of Staff” model, but let’s just say, even in the context of insights, it only incentivizes more time of staff.
Now, I’m not saying the agencies should just fire all the insights people. Of course not. The creative process benefits enormously from having brilliant insights folks sitting down the hall from the creatives, championing the strategy, inspiring them and riffing with them along the way. And some of the better insights people are wonderful at helping clients design creative studies and interpreting existing data in fresh ways. But what I am saying is that it’s no longer “one size fits all.” Agencies and clients would be better served if they conducted an audit of the client’s strategic resources annually so that the client’s own strategic muscle can be deployed as much as possible throughout the year.
We have laid down our arms. At Ideasicle, our business model embraces this “smarter clients” trend. We depend on their strategic resources to inform our strategy, so we can do what we do best, ideas. We haven’t been disappointed yet with a client’s strategic might.
The Insights Cold War could be over. If you want it.