Seems like an issue a lot of people confront today is monetising experience and expertise. If we have a heart problem and need surgery our instinct is to opt for the best man in the land and pay him whatever he asks for. Not so in the wider advertising world.
I trot out the following from time to time when I’m facing a cynical client. A businessman is racing to a very important meeting when his car breaks down. Our man is not a DIY mechanic so within minutes is in a blind panic making frantic calls on his mobile. A van pulls up, the driver offers to help and explains he is a car mechanic. He opens the bonnet of the dead car, has a poke around and then hits part of the engine with a hammer. The mechanic asks the businessman to hit the starter and the engine bursts in to life. Major relief and gratitude all round so the businessman offers some payment. The mechanic proposes £100. The businessman being an accountant by training was expecting a fraction of an hourly rate, about £3 for five minutes, so looked surprised. The mechanic said “It’s £5 for my time and £95 for 30 years of experience. That’s why I could solve your problem and get you out of trouble.”
For all of us in the very early stages of our careers we are learning all the time and more than likely takes us time to get to a solution. Later on in our careers we should have confronted similar problems several times hence we are faster to get to a solution. That’s why doctors and lawyers specialise, they become experts in their chosen field; and as a consequence very well rewarded for their knowledge. Hence our mechanic knew which precise spot to hit with his hammer as he had learnt how to solve this particular problem over the years.
My general hypothesis is that early on most people aren’t too sure about what they are looking for and over time experienced people do know what they are looking for. This means that the ‘due diligence’ or ‘diagnostic’ period is shorter and the ‘strategy’ or ‘prognosis’ period kicks in a lot faster. The idea end of the process has more time and more thought as a consequence, and hopefully better answers.
The problem though is balancing the experience and expertise with appropriate payment. Time isn’t the currency, the correct currency is knowledge, talent and track record. I was brought in by a client in recent times after one of the big name management consultants had spent considerable time evaluating their business at a cost of £2m all based on time costs devoted to the job. I was told by the client that all of the consultants staff working on the project have never worked in their sector before so much of their time was spent getting up to speed on the sector and the particular client. So guessing £1m was the cost of the team just doing their ‘due diligence’. As it turned out it was alleged much of the financial data was incorrect and there wasn’t a proposal on what to do next, i.e. no forward strategy for the business.
Our job was developing a strategy for this client. We did it in under six months for a tenth of the consultants fees. Their work was broadly shelved whereas ours was implemented.
If you then think about the convention in the adworld of pitching the competing agencies have 4-6 weeks to understand the market, the issues confronting the client and developing solutions, all for free!
Imagine Bill Bernbach pitching in to Avis and telling them to leverage their secondary position to Hertz. His idea is expressed as “We’re #2 and we try harder”. Well blow me down with a feather, how long did it take him to conjour up this little ditty? I can hear a client after the meeting saying ‘I could have thought that up’ – yes but you didn’t moron and you never would. Decades later Avis still use the same graphics, almost the same line (I think they dropped #2). Bernbach’s thinking, positioning, line provided Avis with brand equity that is worth gold dust. DDB may have been rewarded by retaining the Avis advertising account for many years.
A similar story lies behind the origins of Canary Wharf. In the mid-’80’s London Docklands was a development zone with low to zero confidence it would ever take off. At the time the area looked like a war zone, no infrastructure, flattened land, generally pretty grim. GGT were invited to pitch for the advertising account and the night before the pitch they had nothing. Just work that was similar to other campaigns for competitive development areas. The issue was the Isle of Dogs was aptly named, nothing to commend it until Dave Trott asked Mike Greenlees why it was different to Milton Keynes or Wales or another development zone in the UK. Greenlees said “Well, they are not in London”.
GGT pitched the next morning with a strategy and idea that leveraged off the other UK development zones with the campaign line “Why move to the middle of nowhere when you can move to the middle of London?”. They also moved the media money away from vertical property publications and on to television with the famous ‘crows’ campaign. This kick started a surge of confidence and interest in the Isle of Dogs – from a wilderness to one of the most important financial centres in the world inside 20 years.
The financial impact on the area, property developers, inward investment, infrastructure, leading up to the 2102 Olympics is immeasurable and it all started with a very smart idea from a few people at GGT.
In the Docklands example the light bulb moment was the night before the pitch but it resulted from experienced people thinking laterally about a very difficult problem. The value was very significant as it provided the client for the first time a positioning that transformed the perception of the Isle if Dogs from a non-starter to the place to invest in for the future.
The big change since Bill Bernbach’s Avis pitch is back then an agency would pitch their ideas for the whole account that could generate revenue for many years to come whereas today neither are the case. Today the ad agency is cut out of media, the biggest spend by the client, in more and more cases the implementation is ‘de-coupled’ from the idea side of things, and quite a few clients seem quite willing to move around more frequently.
So the ad agency’s calling card is narrowed down to ideas and it would seem most, if not all ad agencies struggle with the ability to price idea generation. It was once the free part of the equation in return for a juicy account. Going from free to expensive is a difficult trick to pull off, even if it is justified. Charging time is wholly inappropriate and unrelated to the output.
All I can do on a personal level is lifting the old Stella line – “reassuringly expensive”. It gets a few raised eyebrows but it sorts out the men from the boys saving a lot of wasted time.