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Agency Agony Uncle

The only way is up

Dear Uncle Carl,
You’ve survived a recession, what’s the secret to success in tough times?

Although I survived the recession of the early nineties, 17 people I worked with didn’t. Back then I was a simple, albeit fabulous and talented, employee. But it taught me a couple of lessons. I realised that what I thought was great management, as our agency grew rapidly, was in fact, bad management. We had gone from four people to 117 in eight years, but that growth had taken place in a growing sector and specifically a new ‘discipline’ - in effect, we had not jumped on a bandwagon, we were driving it! So, although the business looked successful, the managers didn’t really know why we were successful or profitable - all they knew was that we were very busy and therefore kept adding staff. So, as soon as clients tightened their belts, the model came crashing down.

I have to add that all 17 people who were made redundant got new jobs very quickly. On a personal note, I had to sit with the then creative director and work out the list of who was to go and who was to stay, which was horrible but also made me realise that the reason why my name wasn’t on the list was because I had made myself ‘indispensible’ – at the time anyway. Which again, as I say many times in this hallowed column, shows that if you do the best you can and add value you have little to fear…except the incompetence of your own managers.

Dear Uncle Carl,
As a creative, how can I keep myself motivated to do great creative work when there is so much doom and gloom around and clients are playing it safe?

Surely, part of being a creative is the ability to be inspired to a creative response regardless of how open or tight the brief is? The fact that there is a backdrop of ‘doom and gloom’ is a red herring really; an excuse to say you can’t be arsed to be inspired or original. You respond to a client’s needs and a client’s brief - not to the state of the FTSE or exchange rate. If your clients seem uninspired and safe then I think some of that falls to your inability to provide them with creative and inspiring solutions. I would also suggest that you could not sell interest free loans on a council estate. Why not give the client what you think they want, but also supply a response to what you believe their business actually needs. Point out how ‘safe’ their competition is, and that if they take calculated creative and brand risks, there could be a great opportunity to gain market share, to drive down customer acquisition costs, to move the perception of their brand, to reignite dormant customer activity – I don’t know what turns them on but you should!

Dear Uncle Carl,
What positives come out of a recession?

Recessions are like a forest fire - they sweep across the forest of our marketing land and it will immediately burn away all the weedy little agencies and the badly run agencies that were just surviving. It will clear space for new breakaway agencies; perhaps these will be run by people who lost their roles in other, not so well managed, agencies. The recession will scorch and hurt established ‘big tree’ agencies but it won’t kill them off; they will simply learn lessons and perhaps lose a few straggling individuals and clients. If they learn from it, it will put them in better shape when the fires of the recession die down. For all of us, it will clear away the dead wood to show us who are the strong vibrant agencies and individuals and also who are the right kind of clients to work for who also have good businesses as well as who the robust suppliers are to help us build our businesses.

Dear Uncle Carl,
Everyone says there is a recession but my agency is doing better than ever. Is now the time to start acquiring other agencies on the cheap and how should I make my approaches to potential targets?

Congrats on your success. But be careful as success is a poor teacher as I witnessed in the nineties - we were successful right up to the point where the clients stopped spending money! I have to agree that if you are currently strong then it could be an interesting year to grow your business in what will no doubt be a stagnant market through mergers and acquisitions. It all depends on the size of your business and the depth of your pockets. If you wish to acquire, then I am sure there will be smaller or weaker agencies willing to take money off you but will the banks lend you money? Will you be willing to give away a percentage to an outside investor, will you be prepared to put your own money where your mouth is? If you wish to find targets to approach then there is nothing wrong with writing directly to them. That’s what happened to me, but I understand that there is a little of ‘I will show you mine, if you show me yours’ and no one wants to go first. So instead you could approach an intermediary or you could approach accountants and lawyers who act on behalf of other businesses looking to do deals. It can even be initiated through well connected high profile column writing uncle types!

Also remember, you are in a business where the assets walk out of the door so you are only buying people and did those people drive their own business into the weakened position it now languishes in? If so, why would you buy them? Mergers could be a cheaper, but not necessarily better, option. I think there will be lots of types of mergers discussed in 2009. Horizontal – two like-minded businesses joining forces, vertical – between agencies and suppliers getting together, market extensions – two agencies with the same offering but different markets. There are many options for two businesses coming together. There will be some duff ones too no doubt; remember if one small, stupid, desperate business joins with another small, stupid, desperate company the chances are they will simply create one BIG, stupid, desperate company.

Dear Uncle Carl,
I was made redundant last week, should I turn my back on this industry or is it worth soldiering on until the good times return?

Yes, you shuffle away with your tail between your legs because your heart was obviously not in the ‘industry’ in the first place. Surely if you really wanted to be in this industry for your own personal goals, then you won’t simply walk away because you were unlucky enough to be in the wrong agency at the wrong time. Being made redundant does not make you bad at what you do and other would-be employers recognise that - it’s more a reflection on the management abilities of your previous employer. There are still jobs to be had, agencies are winning new business, new clients are coming into the market, and new agencies are being created. So the question is, has the industry turned its back on you or have you decided to turn your back on the industry?

Are you troubled? Don’t be. send all your questions for the drum’s agony uncle to dear.carl@carnyx.com Or, If you wish to meet with carl to talk about your business, then simply email him on ch@kloog.ch

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