Will Harris: Beware agencies pleading poverty

Clients charged with cutting costs during the recession must be wary of agencies reluctant to trim the flab

Q: I've just had a meeting with procurement, who want me to reduce the fees I spend on my digital agencies. I've already cut them to the bone. What should I do?

A When I started in advertising 20 years ago this month, procurement was the process of satisfying the needs of the client, normally after lunch or on a shoot: new suit, shoes, entry to a particular club, or worse.

Today, it's all to do with closing the gap between the agency travelling at the front of the plane, and the client travelling at the back. As someone who has worked both sides of the street, on balance, life is generally better with procurement around.

That said, I have a strong view on the limitations of their usefulness. It's led to a few wobbly-lipped conversations with senior procurement people over the years, but it might help in your predicament. Your job is to produce great creative results that drive your business forward. Theirs is to spend less money. Sometimes both aims can be achieved, but not always.

Digital wannabes

The head of procurement is never going to get fired for your agency failing to tag digital assets correctly, or inadvertently pre-releasing a new website showing your new products... but you might. They can cut, cut, cut until the point where the agency starts staffing your account with interns and digital wannabes. At that point, you need to step in.

Having said all that, before you reach for the big red button, are you sure you've cut the agencies to the bone? Are they pleading poverty, while secretly gorging themselves on Dom Perignon at Shoreditch House?

In the early days of the recession, I was asked to give a client's perspective at an event billed as 'Advertising agencies adjust to the new economic reality', held on Baker Street in London. Emerging after a couple of hours of sincere debate, I was met by two dozen black cabs with name boards reading like an advertising who's who. As I unlocked my bike and prepared to do battle with the London traffic, it all felt a little surreal.

So before you go out on a limb for your friends at the agency, just be careful what you are getting yourself into. There's a reason that it's such an oversupplied industry.

Will Harris is a former marketing director for Nokia in the UK and Asia region. He was the first marketing director of the Conservative Party and launch marketing director of the O2 brand.

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