Agency life still ‘a hell of a ride’

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Twenty-years in the same industry is quite a milestone. Vicki Jones, account director at MEA looks back at a quarter of a century of life in design and marketing agencies.

It was 1992 when I fell into London agency life, after a couple of admin roles in media-related companies. I had no real idea what advertising or design agencies actually did but I could soon tell it was going to be one hell of a ride.

The slick offices of Barnes Vereker were in a converted cinnamon warehouse, close to Tower Bridge – the meeting room smelt like apple pie. It was full of energy and booming. They needed more people in the account management team and I must have shown some initiative because they threw me in and encouraged me to learn. And there it began.

MEA account director Vicki Jones.

Two agencies later, and finding myself a Hamiltonian husband en route, I came to Wellington in ’99.  Soon after, Verdict Communications advertised for an account manager and it was the perfect time to call Waikato home. It was a fantastic team, calmer and more laid back than I was used to, but equally as strategic and creative. Most importantly, good people, who soon became my Kiwi family. 17 years later, Verdict is now MEA after a merger with MEA Mobile app and web development company, so much has changed. But much, luckily, has stayed the same.

One of my first clients at Barnes Vereker was a financial services firm and we created acres of coupon response ads. Remember when you cut an ad out of the newspaper, filled in the form and posted it to order a brochure? A far cry from my day now, planning campaigns which still might include press ads but will be heavy on social media ads, like our work for local optometrists, Paterson Burn. And if you’d described GoogleAdWords to any of us then, we’d have looked very confused.

A major change over recent years is the ability, and indeed the necessity, to be constantly upskilling ourselves. At uni, I did a few modules on media and advertising but I hadn’t known you could even do a marketing degree – in fact, I’m not even sure you could in many places then. Now, our kids learn about marketing and advertising early, becoming not only savvy thinkers but savvy consumers.

There’s now easily accessible design tools and YouTube tutorials, endless resources for creative inspiration and free examples of strategy documents, briefs, plans, all simply a click away.

This can be a good thing but it can also be dangerous if it by-passes specialist know-how. It depends on the attitude of the client and how much they value the input external expertise brings.

Obviously the biggest driver of change in nearly everything we do has been technology. But it’s not just the media we consume that has changed the way we market to people. It’s as much about where they are when they are consuming it and where their mindset is.

We know they’re multi-viewing, watching Netflix on their laptop while browsing on a smartphone, or speed-checking social media. But when did any medium consistently get 100 percent of our attention? Is it any different to my dad reading the paper in front of the TV news, or grandma concentrating on her darning while she listened to the wireless?

We’re more impatient now. But is that because we demanded faster-paced lives, or because technology has driven us there? Undoubtedly a bit of both.

Choice. So much of it. Overwhelming. And in some cases, undifferentiated. Standing out with something new is the greatest challenge, especially in design. And even if what you come up with is unique, there’s always someone who says “that reminds me of….”.

I firmly believe the key to success in agency life is nurturing good relationships with your clients. In the early days, yes, there were a lot more long lunches involved, but in recessionary times, the schmoozing got a little more sedate and has sadly never quite returned to its heady heights!

I don’t know whether it’s that clients now see through it all, or if we’ve simply shifted the emphasis. It’s still good to get to know your client well, to understand what makes them tick. But the good clients appreciate you caring about their brand and their goals, not just about them as individuals. I came across a good line the other day – “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care” and that’s certainly true for agency account managers.

We’re pretty lucky at MEA with our clients – or maybe it’s because we look after them so they treat us well in return. I’ve met some amazing people through Verdict and MEA and lots of clients have become good friends, even after they’ve moved to pastures new. And those moves can work in our favour, if they are able to take us with them.

One of the toughest things to deal with, though, is when the boot is on the other foot. Building client relationships means that we become attached to their brand, their story, their messaging. It hasn’t happened often, but when a new marketing manager wants to bring in their own favourite team, those ones really hurt!

Another interesting observation of change over the years is how the boom and bust cycle causes clients to have an in-house preference in the hard times and an agency preference in the good times (because they are so busy in the good times).

In my early days, even with large clients in London, I don’t recall many having in-house design resources, apart from for very basic and mostly internal design.

There are some hugely talented in-house teams, there’s no doubt about that. Clients are wise not to skimp on the calibre of people they put in those roles, if that’s the way they want to go. If not, there is a lot that could go wrong – just because you can cut your own hair doesn’t mean it’s a good idea!

Oh, time for some nostalgia. 25 years ago, I sat behind a little Mac Classic (frankly, the coolest thing ever). We’d have couriers leaving hourly, delivering paper proofs across London, with the fax grinding out memos and approval forms, the mailbag full at the end of the day with contact reports of the day’s conversations. No wonder we all went for spritzers when we eventually finished for the day.

Digital advancements have made life immeasurably easier, but they’ve also changed expectations in terms of timing and cost. It has allowed us to be more reactive and time-relevant in our responses but we most definitely celebrate a healthy timeline now, just as much as we do a generous budget.

I’m not good with change (says the woman who moved from the other side of the world) and the pace of change has sometimes knocked me off balance. But there’s one thing that has never changed and that’s the importance of a good idea. Whatever medium – from a piece of print to a ground-breaking app and beyond – a strong proposition is still what brings success for our clients and where they really see the value in what people like me do.

And I’m still as proud to be part of that success in 2017 as I was in 1992.

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