Are Clients Trying to Put Agencies Out of Business?

Disruption has swept over the ad industry like a rogue wave. The changes washed a lot of people out to sea and they continue to threaten the livelihoods of agency workers, in particular.

Did you know that nearly 80 percent of Association of National Advertisers (ANA) members have some form of in-house agency? This is compared to just 58 percent of marketers who took some form of advertising in-house in 2013, and 42 percent in 2008.

That’s a lot of change on both sides of the client-agency table within the past five to ten years.

“The work being done by in-house agencies is no longer confined to ‘low-hanging fruit’ such as collateral/promotional materials and internal videos,” said ANA CEO Bob Liodice.

While marketers are turning increasingly inward — respondents said more than half of the total amount of work (58 percent) is done in-house — the survey also showed that 90 percent still work with external agencies.

The Root of the Problem: Lack of Trust

Bill Duggan, group executive vice president of ANA said the findings “weren’t a huge surprise,” pointing to major client/agency trust issues as the key driver for this increase.

“The reasons for in-housing historically have been cheaper and faster, and nothing has changed,” he said. “Two recent trends that have accelerated in-house agency: transparency/trust and data.

“I believe trust between clients and agencies is at the lowest it’s ever been throughout my career.”

The Rigorous Path Back to the Mountaintop

Duggan and Liodice are on the client’s side. Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO of the 4A’s has another agency-friendly point of view.

Agencies need to, quite frankly, step it up and talk about the positive impact they make and the positive business solutions they deliver. I think there’s tremendous value in what agencies bring because of the complexities that exist today.

Agencies are more important and needed than ever to help guide and give that perspective of what’s next and what’s coming. We don’t celebrate enough of those stories.

Bonehook and 99 percent of the agencies in this country do not belong to the 4A’s. We don’t have a spokesperson at an official organization to lobby on our behalf. We must do it ourselves.

Insert Bonehook Case Study (In Miniature)

It’s story time, friends…

Once upon a time, in a western desert not too far from here, Bonehook helped a healthcare and human services company assess a painful operations problem in need of a robust communications solution.

We worked with Danville Services Corporation in Salt Lake City for several years on a “Recruit and Retain” communications plan and the phased rollout of this plan. Danville, like all companies serving people with disabilities, found it hard to find qualified candidates and tough to keep them for more than a year, once hired.

We brought several inter-related solutions forward, including the creation of new collateral materials and a pop-up booth for use at career events. We also automated Danville’s Job Postings made to the company website.

I highlight this relatively simple solution because it showcases how we work. We help the internal marketing and/or creative teams, and we work with people in sales, IT, product development and HR. For Danville, which has multiple offices across four western states, the communications solution had to be shared with and activated by more than half a dozen stakeholders.

There’s no ivory tower anywhere near this, us or the customers we are honored to work closely with on important challenges to their current and future profitability.

Take a Right on Respect Street

I’ve also been seated at the table with customers who lacked trust in our ability to move the needle for them. It can be hard at times to not take their slights personally, although it’s our job to keep the focus on the communications problem(s) before us.

I’ve also worked with plenty of customers who prefer to rewrite and redesign the project at the table, instead of providing legitimate feedback based on the creative brief and letting the talent work it out. It can be maddening, but again, it’s our job to educate and to do that we must be patient and compassionate.

If you’ve ever worked with me, you know how much I care about your business and my own. You also know I am in the room to question, to challenge and to get everyone to think. That’s why my time is valuable and why we command a premium price. It’s also why we get fired, sometimes, and why we choose to walk away at other times.

Be Curious, Adventurous and Prosperous

From our end, critical assessments of a company’s marketing opportunities are always well-intentioned, but the insights and recommendations we bring can cause sparks to fly. It’s human nature to get stuck in one place. We all do it, but in business, stasis is a problem. That’s why we must continually find new ways to break through old patterns (and the people who can help to push us across the finish line).

As the agency, we are professionally obligated to enter the room curious. We know how much there is to learn and we love to learn. We never assume interest. Like respect and trust, we seek to earn it from our own customers and our customers’ customers. Many of our peers spend a lot of time trying to impress prospective customers with how much they know. This is what we know…our customers have unique marketing challenges that our standardized offerings can solve.

It’s not easy to clarify your company’s product or service offering and move people to care, but there are steps we can take. To discuss our Brand Messaging Assessment, Copywriting Course and Coaching or Discovery and Strategy Sessions in greater detail, send a note to david@bonehook.com and we’ll find a good time to talk.

Brands Don’t Want Better Creative, They Want A Money Making Machine

I was talking to a tax lawyer the other day about the impacts of moving Bonehook from Oregon to Texas. He said something that might alert many small business owners, particularly small agency owners. He said the company was virtually worthless from an assets perspective.

Thankfully, I understood what he meant. He meant that a service-based business like Bonehook has all its value wrapped up in the partners (and our ability to win business, manage the business and produce the work). In other words, we have no taxable assets.

While I don’t take offense to this strict portrayal of the company, it’s not something I’m okay with, not by a long shot. We may wish to sell Bonehook someday, and this clearly means there has to be something here worth buying. And that means developing the kind of systems that future owners can use to reproduce the kind of financial results that attracted them to our company in the first place.

I’ve been working in the agency business since 1997, first as a copywriter, then as a creative director, before launching Bonehook in 2009 and becoming a business owner and wearer of many hats. Thus, I feel confident when I say that creative people don’t care much for systems or the idea of reproducible results. Because we do custom work!

It Helps To Know What Business You’re In

Have you heard about the tension that can crop up between account service team members and the people in the creative department? It happens because creative people don’t care much for systems or the idea of reproducible results.

Do you know who does like systems and reproducible results? The customer!

My friend Charlie Quirk, a brand strategist, says, “The best creatives of any flavor realize it’s not about them, but service to the client’s biz.” He’s a problem solver working in communications. That’s what we aspire to be.

Better Creative Is the Means to An Important End

The good news for Bonehook is the work we provide is an efficient and affordable means to our customer’s desired ends—more customers, more voters, more members and more advocates.

When you’re hung up on making custom work, an efficient and affordable means to a customer’s desired ends doesn’t make sense. Great work that helps to define brands (and make the register ring) takes lots of time and money to make. How can it also be efficient and affordable?

Here’s another truth that people in marketing hide from. There are only so many communications challenges and a finite number of solutions to them, as well. The better we are at assessing the problems and offering practical solutions, the faster we can move into the making phase. And the better we are at managing the account and the entire production process, the more money we make.

What we do is highly specialized, but it’s no big mystery. A company like ours needs systems that are capable of churning out reproducible results. We didn’t know this in the beginning. Now, we do.

Alert: Content Does Not Convert

I was an early content marketing practitioner and champion of the form. The idea was content would offer a richer advertising experience than the ads of old. I pursued the idea with gusto and I am glad I did. Not everything turned out as planned, but I learned a lot.

I may as well come out and say what I’ve been thinking for some time: content marketing is more about promise than performance. There is still a solid reason to produce top-notch content as part of your marketing mix—high-value content helps your website rank high and it helps create awareness for your brand. But it doesn’t convert.

Content fails to convert because most brand-made or brand-sponsored content is simply ignored. It’s invisible. Did you know that just 5% of branded content garners 90% of total consumer engagements? In other words, 19 out of 20 content pieces get little to no engagement.


“The current wisdom that brands need to be content machines is simply not supported by the data,” says Jennifer Zeszut, CEO of Beckon. “Brands might be shocked to hear that while branded content creation is up 300 percent year over year, consumer engagement with that content is totally flat. They’re investing a lot in content creation, and it’s not driving more consumer engagement.”

Beckon analyzed over $16 billion in omnichannel marketing spend and performance data to better understand what works, what doesn’t, and where to invest in content.

The Relationship Between Engagement and Conversion

There is no closing without meaningful engagement first. Which begs the question, what type of content do people prefer to spend time with? The answer isn’t video or a blog post. We need to understand what triggers people to pay attention and to act, in every medium.

I’ve produced thousands of blog posts, a.k.a. thought pieces, and just as many social media updates for my own brands and for clients, so I have a lot of my own first-hand experience to offer. What works is attaching an offer to a piece of content and then promoting the content consistently. Posts that are not boosted or targeted are going to float downstream unless your content happens to be the exception, not the rule.

One of the colossal mistakes that I made in my content development journey is driving engagement but failing to connect it to an offer. My last 14 years of effort on Adpulp.com is the prime example of this. I successfully built the brand and got thousands of readers to gather ’round. What I failed to do is provide the audience members a series of offers that would help to support my side project. Lesson learned.

This Is Advertising—You Pay to Play

Content specialist, Mark Schaefer, wrote about this problem in 2014.

This intersection of finite content consumption and rising content availability will create a tremor I call The Content Shock…

The idea that ‘great content rises to the top’ is over. We are in an era where advertising, promotion, and distribution strategies may eclipse the importance of the content itself.

“We are in an era where advertising, promotion, and distribution strategies may eclipse the importance of the content itself.” That’s a sentence worth repeating and committing to memory. In other words, the best-made content in the world isn’t going to move anyone if they never see it.

For years, I’ve advocated that a brand’s content help support its advertising and vice versa. Now, it’s past time to update that to a brand’s content is its advertising.

Customer Showcase: Kim Olson for Texas Commissioner of Agriculture

Kim Olson is a dynamic public speaker, a proven leader and a fierce advocate for sensible new leadership in Austin. She’s in a close race for Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, a position currently held by Sid Miller. Like Miller, Olson is a farmer. That’s where the similarities end.

To reach potential voters, the Kim Olson campaign hired Bonehook to make out-of-home advertising and newspaper ads for placement in dozens of markets throughout the state.

The centerpiece of the new ad campaign, “I Mend Fences,” showcases Olson’s agricultural roots and the reality of modern day politics.

According to Nancy Nichols, Media Director for Kim Olson, “Citizens of Texas want real solutions for their families, not more bluster and a cloud of dust.”

We were hired to amplify Kim Olson’s true grit and her big ideas in print advertising, out-of-home advertising and social media advertising—while giving the people of Texas several great reasons to vote for her.

Art Direction: Cathy Solarana of Wheelhouse Collective

Jump over to our portfolio pages to see the entire campaign.

Breakthrough Creative Does Not Appear Randomly In the World

Clients come to us for the creative outputs we offer them, but our work is not possible without first establishing a trust relationship with the decision-maker on the client team.

This is how it works: Our clients trust that we are the best resource for their needs, and we trust that the client sees us as the experts in what we do. If this trust goes missing for whatever reason from either direction, the game is over.

Tina Roth Eisenberg is a serial entrepreneur and designer. I have a lot of respect for her work and I love her recent take on the agency business, which she left behind to pursue her startups.

You really have to be a certain type of personality to be okay with the client-service model. I like to build something. I like to figure something out. I don’t like just to dip in and shake it up and then hand it back.

I have admitted more than once that I do not have the right personality for client service. Like Tina Roth Eisenberg, I feel a sense of “ownership” of the work. At the same time, we are clearly hired to make the work for our clients, with their money. Thus, they ALWAYS have a big say in the shaping of the work.

To me, it matters how a client provides feedback and how the agency manages this feedback. If a client routinely rewrites the copy and suggests changes to the art, a flag needs to be thrown. I understand that clients sometimes don’t realize they’re overstepping. Nevertheless, it’s our job to establish the ground rules for the engagement before any work starts.

It Always Starts Before It Begins

It’s funny, but not, how much damage to one’s business is self-inflicted. When you compromise your values and accept less from a client, financially or otherwise, you’re asking for trouble. It’s imperative for an agency to hold its ground on pricing and process. Save the wiggle room for later when it comes to the actual work because it simply can’t be there in the beginning.

I know all this sounds like a power struggle, and it is. When an agency gives its power away, the agency loses. That’s the mindset shift that has to be front-and-center for all agency staff. The client will always have the power of their pocketbook and a right to voice their convictions. That’s fine. As long as we successfully establish why we’re worth what we’re worth and what we bring to the table. Without that understanding, there is no balance to the partnership and it’s doomed to fail.

On the other hand, when a client knows precisely why they’re paying a premium, their doubts fade away.

Be Trustworthy Now

Breakthrough creative does not appear randomly in the world. The agency sets the stage for a client’s future wins, which means a lot of hard work has to be done behind the scenes to earn the trust of clients, without which the creative team will be severely hampered in their abilities to deliver.

As a creative, I still see some of this interpersonal work as a hassle, but I do not question its value. Coming up with big ideas is relatively easy. Making them come true, on time and within budget for a client, is never easy. There are always a dozen ways the work can be killed or harmed before it’s launched. When there’s a lot on the line, people get scared, nervous and dangerous. The account sage preserves the peace and moves the process forward.

I do not yet have “account sage” status, but I am steadily working my way to the mountaintop.

Why Cross-Training Is Mandatory

My responsibilities at Bonehook include managing new business, account service, agency operations, strategic planning, creative direction and copywriting.

My core skills are copywriting and creative direction, and I love to focus there. So, why do I bother with all these other roles? The answer is we rely on new business, account service, agency operations and strategic planning to open the door to better creative.

The need to wear multiple hats also extends to the client-side of the table. Clients, like agencies, are running lean. This puts the onus on staff to juggle. When a company does not have a marketing department or director, the complexity multiplies. For instance, it’s tough to discuss the value of brand with someone who can only think about a quarterly sales bump and how it will save their job.

Ultimately, cross-training strengthens both agency and client teams. People gain more skills and confidence on the job. Beyond the skills gained, cross-training promotes deeper organizational understanding and empathy. The more I can learn about a client’s pain, the more prepared I am to offer the correct solution. This means I have to listen intently with no prescribed solutions at the ready. It’s not the easiest thing to learn to do, but it’s one of the more valuable things I’m learning to do.

Dear Democrats, Please Don’t Be Eli

I recently rewatched the film There Will Be Blood starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a focused and ruthless oil man. At the end of the film, there’s a scene that’s hard to watch, but it’s worth paying attention to.

The Eli character is an ego-fueled preacher on hard times. He wants money from his former benefactor. But the benefactor has always despised the preacher’s weakness, pious blather, and his failure to face the facts of his own life. Eli refuses to see how the ground under his feet has been eroded by “the long straws” of those more eager and willing to do what it takes to win, and this flaw is his ultimate undoing.

Right now, Democrats are desperate, like Eli. Yet too many Dems want to think of themselves as better people than their Republican counterparts. They want to play fair, all the while fooling themselves that you can enter or survive a knife fight this way.

When Democrats fundamentally misread the threat, their failure puts us all in harm’s way. Why is this? No one wants to sound alarmist or crazy. It might hurt their professional reputations, or make someone they care about angry.

When Will Candidates Recognize That They’re Also A Brand?

It’s imperative to boil down a candidate’s message to one thought. Few politicians manage to do this well. One exception was President Johnson in 1964. With the help of Doyle Dane & Benrbach—the best ad agency in the country at that time—Johnson’s team was able to portray Goldwater as lethal.

When we consider Trump today, we can choose from dangerous, ill-informed, criminal, unAmerican, sexist, racist, and so on. The trick for the Dems is to choose the right pain point—the one American voters care most about—and deliver ads that relentlessly exploit his, and the GOP’s weaknesses.

Like A Winning Company, Design Your Path To Victory

I hope that candidates from coast-to-coast are studying Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic win in New York and asking themselves what they might learn. There are quite a few political lessons to focus on, but there’s also a communications lesson.

For starters, take a look at the sea of political signs at a polling station or in a supporter’s yard. The visual identity and approach to copy from most candidates and ballot initiatives are stale. It’s a sea of red-white-and-blue with bold lettering. A brand that stands out must veer from this framework. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign materials are mostly purple and look nothing like what we’ve come to expect. Her showcase video also is a moving story that helps voters in her district relate to her. Most voters can’t see themselves as a candidate for Congress. Ocasio-Cortez just changed that score for good.

Make Likeability Your “X” Factor

There are thousands of candidates running for office in 2018. Only a fraction will find their voice and be unafraid and vulnerable in public. Even fewer will properly invest in their own brand identity so it pays off at the ballot box, even though elevating brand standards in political campaigns is a clear way to raise the overall discourse and help attract interest from sideline sitters.

Again, we have an opportunity to learn from Republicans. In Austin, Texas, Gerald Daugherty, a Travis County Commissioner used humor to his advantage and was re-elected.

For an audience that is used to watching King of the Hill reruns, a candidate’s talking points ought to be more like punchlines. I know our current predicament as a nation is not funny. I’m saying that fighting corruption can be. Instead of debating the points, point by point, we can find a way to make light of it, while pointing out the much better alternatives that exist in every district across our beautiful land.

What Bonehook Is Doing To Help Progressives Win

We have four months to wake people up. I know there are thousands of people like me in the ad business who want to help, and who are uniquely prepared to help. Let’s do this right and uplift the long-shots and outsiders with laser-focused messaging and brilliant design.

If you’re a staffer on a campaign and you’ve read this far, thank you. Please reach out to me ask for our support today. I started my communications career on Capitol Hill in D.C. 31 years ago. I know how to help raise money and attract voter attention for your campaign.

Bonehook will rock your campaign materials, and give you a fighting chance to win. I do realize that we’re not the same old or expected choice. Either was DDB in ’64, and either are you!