I just watched the Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, and saw in it a powerful story about some of the problems facing marketing agencies today.
To be clear, I’m in no way comparing the industry or marketers to Fyre Festival founder, Billy McFarland. He is a straight up con-man who’s now in jail. But rather than indict the agency and social marketers who oversold the Festival, I empathized with them.
The documentary shows just how many people were willing to work with McFarland because they thought it would be good for their own business.
The marketing agency business has never been easy. A lot of people who’ve never worked in an agency might have watched Mad Men and come away with the impression that it’s all five martini lunches, or hosting clients at the Super Bowl and hanging out on the beach in Cannes.
In fact, much of the agency business is about pitching. And pitching. And pitching. Agencies can spend months just putting together a response to a request for information, with only a lucky few moving onto the request for proposal—which might as well be called request for work. In my 20-plus years in the agency business, most RFPs are the embodiment of work, and almost always unpaid. Some clients offer a minor stipend, but not many.
From there, agencies move to in-person presentations, where they have to show real work—not work done for others, but work for the client.
If you ask directly: “Are you looking to see creative?” they will usually answer with: “It’s more strategic direction that we’re looking for” or “If you can show more general creative direction, it might help illustrate your work better.” It’s never called spec work because they’re worried about industry backlash. But what they are asking for can be translated as: “Show us creative.”
Once the business is awarded, everything the agency has presented is up in the air because it requires approval from procurement. This is where the margins dwindle. The reality is this: You are candid and open about pricing all throughout the pitch process, you advance from round to round, and then—even though the client chose you based on your pricing—you get hammered down further by procurement.
You’re in too deep
So what do you do? Do you balk when the client asks for more creative? Do you step away in the final round after the client sends you an additional two pages of questions? Almost never, because you and your agency are in too deep. It’s not worth it to step away, so you do the additional unpaid work.
What about when procurement tells you the payment terms are 120 days? Are you willing to toss away the thousands of dollars you’ve invested on the pitch? No, because the whole point of the agency is to be a partner to the client, and partners are supposed to support each other, right? Plus, you need the business, so you just hope for the best.
Agencies in the blind
Agencies do all this without really knowing what they are getting into. How well the client is capitalized, their ability to pay the bills, even how close they might be to bankruptcy are all closely-guarded secrets.
Agencies only get to assess the client from the outside looking in, while the client can ask a million questions about the agency’s financing and capitalization. We simply don’t know if a client has the ability to pay, or if they’re operating on a fast-fraying thread.
So, back to McFarland. He had all the trappings of an A-list client: Fancy lifestyle, constant flow of money, access to people with power. It’s social proofing of the highest order. And if you’re a marketing agency, why wouldn’t you want this type of company as a client? Big budget, exciting event, entertainment, influencer marketing, social media marketing—all tied to a technology platform staffed by smart people.
Most agency leaders I know would probably watch this documentary and still pitch the exact same type of client the very next day. That’s the business.
They would take on the account and quickly find themselves neck-deep in the marketing. They would be doing everything they could to make the brand as exciting as possible, placing faith in the client to deliver on what they’re selling—the product, the service, the quality, the experience.
Then they realize, far too late, that the product will not meet expectations. That the client is in way over their head. All an agency can hope for now is to get paid and walk away.
A better ending
It’s easy to say that agencies get the clients they deserve. It’s easy to armchair quarterback the Fyre Festival and judge it all in reverse. But ask yourself: How many times has your business been in way too deep, and all you could do was hope that things worked out for the best?
Maybe if it wasn’t such a rat race to win the business.
Maybe if there was a real sense of due diligence.
Maybe if there was a real partnership between the clients and agencies.
Maybe if there was more transparency in the pitch process.
Maybe if agencies had real knowledge about the business of their clients.
But that day isn’t here. Yet.
Mitch Joel is the founder of Six Pixels Group—an advisory, investing and content producing company that is focused on commerce and innovation. He’s also the author of two books, Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete, and is the former president of Mirum, a global digital marketing agency owned by WPP.