Last Thursday was my first anniversary at GroupM, and the next day was my last there. A short tenure, and one year in an agency is too less a timeframe to be exposed to all the facets, people and processes a large (media) agency has to offer. But limiting though it is, I’d still like to share my (limited) thoughts, because I wasn’t able to get these perspectives before I made the shift to the agency side. My contacts on the client side had near zero clue on life in an agency, and my agency friends were veterans who had always been on that side. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that these things might be unfamiliar to a n00b! :)

These are based on what I saw and experienced, and hence more subjective than objective. I’m restricting it to three aspects that bring out some good and some not-so-good points.

Relationships: (Client, Partners) I have seen some fantastic relationships with clients and partners, based on mutual trust. Add to this, a great view of publishers and platforms (both traditional and digital) and the agency is in just the right place to make a difference to the client’s business. The flip side is that many a time, these relationships are taken for granted, by both sides. Campaign based thinking and last minute briefs coexist with half-hearted work cobbled together while waiting at the client’s reception. This extends to the agency’s partners as well. One possible way to fix this is to set expectations clear on both sides and understand long term implications of short term choices, but there are constraints, especially in an age when agencies are willing to undercut and bleed to get business.

Scale: (Industry, organisation) In many cases, the agency handles huge budgets, across diverse platforms. Once again, this puts them in the perfect frame to bring about changes that can alter the course and behaviour of entire industries and to begin with, at least their marketing domains. But I haven’t seen that happening a lot. One possible reason is that the agency structure is rather silo based and there aren’t a lot of people having strategic and operational experience across traditional, digital and social platforms. The interoperability of these silos is not really the best. Therefore, whether the current setup is capable of providing one cohesive, platform agnostic direction aimed at business outcomes is a question worth exploring.

I also think that the concept of value has somehow been irretrievably tied to scale, probably a baggage from the traditional media era. The themes of the digital era – experimentation, agile marketing, brand storytelling on digital etc – are reduced to near-zero significance in the narrative that the agency presents to the client. From the agency perspective, to quote Stalin (or Mao/Lenin/Trotsky!) “Quantity has a quality all its own“, but whether it adds the best value to a client’s business future is a question often unasked. When the agency itself is hesitant and rather unwilling to change, where does that leave the client?

Talent: (Workforce, Skills) One of the reasons I decided to explore the agency side was for the experience of working with multiple brands across domains. That remains a huge advantage this side offers. I have also seen GroupM do a bunch of things to expand and sharpen the skills of its workforce. The issue that I noticed is that the sheer scale of the organisation makes smooth implementation a challenge. Also, both discovery and navigation are far from easy. For example, there might be great work done on some brand, but how easy is it for a person to know and then attempt to be a part of it? The other challenge when all sorts of verticals and horizontals (account leads, domain experts, regional bosses etc) collide is accountability. To create systemic checks at this scale is not an easy task at all, and this might be a downer for a lot of people who are used to different standards.

So, why would you join the agency side? I can provide a few scenarios based on career stages. Early in your career (0-5 years) if you’re relatively young and would like to get some cross domain exposure of how a brand and its media vehicles function before you specialise, this would be a good place to explore. If you have 5-10 years of experience, but would like to shift your domain (say, from traditional to digital) an agency stint could help you do that. After a decade of experience, if you want a different perspective, exposure to more domains, or even a reduction in pace, the agency could offer that as well. As with every other job, a lot depends on your intent, but my take is that irrespective of the career stage, you will need at least 2-3 years of investment before you can start driving your agenda. Before you ask, it doesn’t work that way everywhere, I have had three jobs that taught me otherwise. :)

If I had to sum it all up – agencies and the clients they deal with – at the risk of generalisation, I’d have to go with

CS1