Advertising Agencies in Canada: The boardroom table is getting full

BY barry hillier

I’d like to pass along an interesting analogy told to me by Mark Smyka, the founding editor of Strategy Magazine, where he discussed the rapid and interesting changes he witnessed in advertising over the past 30 years. He noted that thirty years ago, you would find a boardroom table where a Brand Manager would sit at the head and someone from her Ad Agency would sit at her right hand side. In her interactions with her agency, she would have briefed the Ad Agency on her objectives and then, after they took that brief away for strategic and creative thinking, she would lean over and ask what they thought she should do. The agency would tell her “We think you should do this!” and that’s what she did.

Then you skipped to twenty to fifteen years ago and you found the players surrounding the boardroom table had increased. You still had the Brand Manager sitting at the head of the table with the Ad Agency sitting to her right. But you also had someone from Direct Marketing, another from Events and Promotions and a scattering of other agencies who were all sitting relatively silently and looking for scraps at the table. The Brand Manager would turn to the agency and ask, “What do they think?” The Ad Agency would go around the table and tell the Brand Manager what each person across the table thought. The Brand Manager would then again turn to the agency and ask what she should do. At that point, the agency would tell her “We think you should do this!” and that’s what she did.

Moving through the years, the boardroom table has continued to increase with even more people. In addition to the staples from before, you now have Digital, Social Media, In-Store, Media Buyers and Media Planners, salespeople for everything from washroom advertising to experiential advertising and a whole lot more. From week to week, the people would sometimes change and sometimes remain the same, but it wasn’t the old boardroom anymore. Now, the Brand Manager turns to the Ad Agency and says, “Shut up, I want to hear what they have to say.” She then goes around the room asking questions one by one. Then she turns to the agency and asks “What do you think we should do?” The agency would say what they’ve always said, “We think you should do this!”. Only now, the Brand Manager is likely to reply “I’m not convinced. I think we should do this! Please make sure it gets coordinated!” And in the past few years, the Ad Agency is finding itself in a different position that they did 30 years ago.

The new boardroom has pros and cons. There are many more voices and perspectives, but this creates difficulty and conflict as well. What is everyone’s role and how do you ensure competing companies cooperate? This is where clients need to change as well and ensure that they bring the right people to the table while giving a clear understanding of what each person’s role will be as well as the rules of engagement. Today, our industry is still based on creative and strategic thinking, but success is equally measured by our combined collaboration at the boardroom table. Those that can play and think well together are successful. Those who can not, get moved aside.  What are your thoughts on the new boardroom and where are you sitting?


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  • 05/06/12

    Roy Levine says:

    Great post, Barry. We couldn't agree more. In fact, just this morning we were in talking to the head of marketing at a major automotive manufacturer and he echoed your sentiment from his side of the table. He sees a lot of dis-coordination and territoriality from his partners. The burden of figuring things out and playing hall monitor ends up on him, not a job he wants to have. Not one, frankly, that he should. Not to mention the work ends up suffering. Team Of Record is the new AOR and unless you can play nice in the sandbox, stay out.
  • 05/06/12

    Barry Hillier says:

    Thanks Roy. Appreciate your comments and love the term, Team Of Record. We hear more clients complaining about the very conversation you had this morning. The good news is the amount of partners who do know how to play well in the sandbox.
  • 08/07/12

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