Pulling no punches: The year ahead for ad agencies

For 2015, let's rally behind the hashtag #BeNice -- and still hang tough behind our commitment to healthy competition

The best results usually come out of tension. Think about it. The jet engine was born from literal conflict … war. Much of the economic and innovation surges throughout time have followed periods of chaos and tension. I have a friend who describes this as "rainbows after storms."

So, for this year’s resolution, I’m going to support two completely contradictory themes: being nicer and being tougher. Two words that have a tension between them, and that you often don’t see in the same sentence. 

Let me explain.

Competition is what we all thrive on. "Eat what you kill" behavior often separates the great agencies from the good ones. However, when taken to an extreme, we have seen it lead to an unsavory side of competition. Take for example our seeming reluctance to praise competitors for good work. We would rather trash someone else’s efforts, or say nothing, than praise them for a job well done. 

"Must be a scam ad." 

"Wasn’t work for a real client." 

"Been there/done that."

"That creative team is a bunch of hacks."

How many times have we seen comments like these posted online? 

We seem to forget that when good work is done, everybody wins: clients see value, agencies are motivated to try to do better, talent becomes attracted to our industry… and most important, clients will not hesitate to pay us for our value to their business. 

I often tell my daughter that being nice is one of the keys to life. So, this is one element to my New Year’s resolution: to put this in the form of a hashtage — #BeNice

Here’s another practice I can’t understand: giving away the farm. 

I’m not the first person to jump on the soapbox here, but I’ll do so anyway.

When price becomes the focus of discussion (versus value), I cringe. That’s because I know we’re not going to win. That’s OK because that usually means this is a client that’s not a good fit for our agency. We’re not the cheapest option in town. And there’s always someone who will undercut and compromise on price. Demonstrating superior value really should be the barometer. 

When price is the only determining factor, is it any wonder that some clients view what we do as interchangeable? That all agencies are the same and/or that, if push comes to shove, they might even be able to do the work just as well in-house?

Along these same lines, as an industry, we should all come together to fight the growing trend of giving ideas away for free. 

An agency’s reel, case histories and experience with other clients in related categories are more than ample proof of its ability to meet a client’s business challenges. Is more really necessary? In addition, there have been instances where we’ve been "invited" to present ideas with the hope of working with a prospective client. However, the fine print maintains the client will then own the work and has the right to produce these ideas with whomever they want. 

That’s no good. 

So on both fronts, I hope more agencies more often just say no. We’d all be better off, including clients.

I’m left pondering whether "nice" and "tough" are really opposite. Actually, I think we can be nice and have teeth at the same time. Even if you don’t believe it’s possible, I’m encouraged by a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Genius is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time."

Well, I’m no genius, but I am an optimist. 

Here’s to a great 2015.

John Osborn is president and CEO of BBDO New York.


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