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Family - A Seattle Advertising Agency

The Clients Won. And This Is What We’re Gonna Do About It

Marketing Strategy

The old models of making money at production companies and advertising agencies are falling by the wayside. Budgets are crashing through the floor, and they’re not coming back. Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the clients won. And this is their reward:

  • Dysfunctional in-house creative and production teams

  • A thinner roster of competent and dependable partners

  • Over-promising and under-delivering by new partners

  • Every corner cut at critical points in the process

  • Smaller budgets to stretch

But never underestimate the corporate world’s appetite for mediocrity. Most of the time they don’t want or need high quality. They need dumpsters full of “just good enough.” Everyone else in the process is motivated to doll up the best work possible, because that’s what leads to the next client. Folks are hired on the quality of their reel. But as we continue to devalue everyone and everything that moves in our industry, where does it end? The latest rumblings are terrifying.

It’s Gonna Be Great for Your Reel

Agencies are asking production companies to create Super Bowl ads for free. You can hear the pitch already: You’ll get plenty of new clients if you make this spot for us. But how long before clients catch on and start asking the agencies to do Super Bowl advertising for free? Spoiler Alert: We’re headed for a very dark place.

The mid-level budgets got hollowed out over a decade ago, and now we’re trimming the top of the tree. I recently spoke with Paul Green, producer at Anonymous Content in Los Angeles. He described commercial production as a very, very difficult business to be in right now. I couldn’t agree more. A lot of highly skilled people (and companies) are leaving the business. That’s another stink bomb clients will inherit.

The War Between Old Allies

As production companies add strategy and other agency-like services, clients are starting to divert work directly to them. Meanwhile, agencies have been building out in-house production capabilities for years, cutting out the production companies. And business consultants are doing both, cutting everyone out. I haven’t even mentioned digital teams siphoning off a larger share of marketing budgets every year. Next stop, the final scene of Othello – a complete blood bath.

The New Paradigm of Persuasion

As this industry morphs into something different, simple truths are clear:

  • Help. Ways that make consumers’ lives better and easier will be the new advertising, because they garner attention.

  • Stop interrupting. That strategy left town years ago, even though there are plenty of clients who pay a lot of money to keep doing it. But it’s a sinking ship. Have your life raft ready.

  • Stop pitching. Entertaining, longer-form storytelling increases engagement and brand awareness. Not another case study or list of benefits.

  • Consumers want experiences. It’s too easy to block, skip or avoid advertising. Build experiences they want to engage with.

  • Love. Game your campaigns for the relationship, not the platform. A Facebook video isn’t a strategy, it’s a tactic.

  • There are only so many we can fit in the life raft. There will be fewer people and companies in this business.

The Treacherous Path Forward

  • Specialize. It cuts out a lot of opportunities, but it’s a real difference-maker if you’re the leader in your niche. Or better yet, create your own niche.

  • Partner with people who can execute on putting the right message at the right time in front of the right audience. They are going to win everything. Relevance to a warm audience is better than the world’s greatest offer to a cold one.

  • Be aware that only large clients can consistently afford long-form storytelling.

We aren’t in the commercial-making business. We’re in the behavior-changing business. The clients won. Our first step is to change our own behavior.

Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike


Wanna know why traditional production companies will not survive? Read all about it.

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