below-the-line agencies should stay there

It seems that every company with a Photoshop license seems to think that they are an ad agency…like this partner agency that I am working with. They are a below-the-line/brochure shop and every time they present new creative, they always seem to have somehow slipped a brand ad into their presentation.


Of course, they say that it’s only “to illustrate the holisitic nature of the idea” but we all know what they are really trying to do. They’re trying to broaden their scope of work. They’re trying to win some of our business.

They’re so bad at actual advertising that they don’t stand a chance.

I lucked into finding out just how bad they are because I happened to be at our client’s office for an unrelated-to-their-presentation meeting and the client invited us in to the meeting. The look on their face when the ad agency turned up to participate and they knew they were presenting print was classic.

The look on my face when I saw their work was a mixture of reflexive disgust and ego-boosted glee.

The headlines were ill-punctuated written representations of an array of catered turd sandwiches. Oh, and they didn’t use the brand tagline (not that something like a tagline is important or anything). I couldn’t help but laughing…and then trying to cover it up…and ending up giving myself a coughing fit. My throat was sort the rest of the afternoon. But it was worth it.

Agencies of the world, hear me now – below-the-line, SEO, brochures, PR, promotions, etc and so on are an important part of the marketing mix but you’re in no way capable of doing the heavy lifting of brand building. Most traditional below-the-line is product selling, not brand building. And that’s cool, products do need to be sold last I checked…it’s just doesn’t really prepare you to do this advertising thing.

It’s harder than it looks.

20 responses to “below-the-line agencies should stay there

  1. Interactive_Dude

    Hey listen, I love your blog, but I’ve seen this from the other side of the fence. I’m on the interactive side, and occasionally have to partner with “traditionals” on executing a brand vision, and some of the shit we get handed that’s supposed to be a “brief” is so poorly thought through a couple of 8-year-olds with a crayon could’ve done it. I’m talking slide after slide of complete and total “we did this the night before” bullshit that, guess what, makes you wonder what in the hell your clients are paying these jerkoffs for. So, I’m sure you’re very good at this stuff, but just remember that there’s plenty of teams out there at the traditional agencies that make those of us who actually care about our clients NEED to steal their business.

    Now, however, working with partner agencies where you might cross each other a bit on competencies ALWAYS completely sucks, because no matter how on-the-level you might be with the people you work with day-to-day, there’s always some VP jerkoff that gets a bonus for blowing up the whole partner agency relationship by trying to steal the business from you. I can relate to that so I appreciate the rant, but to be honest, in this post you sound a bit like the arrogant big-agency people that think everything they do is secret-magic-dust-from-genius-ad-fairies. Sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s just obvious so that any smart person with a few years of experience and good impulses can figure out.

    That being said, I’m sure the particular ads they brought in sucked as hard as possible — there sure doesn’t seem to be an endless supply of absolutely shitty work.

  2. You hit the point right on the nail. I mean, nail on the point.

    Ad agencies don’t know what to do these days with the digital marketing landscape changing so fast.

    Here is a site that covers this point nicely:

  3. @Interactive Dude – That post really did make me come off like an arrogant big agency person and I’m not even at a big agency!

    My beef isn’t with other agencies and my point isn’t that they are inferior – I kinda tried to make the point by saying that their role was important but when I read it now it seems condescending and I didn’t mean it that way – but rather that acting like a douche and trying to steal another agency’s work (especially when it’s laughably bad) is ridiculously awful.

    My agency doesn’t try to do brochures or promotional microsites or any of that shit…we respect their competencies. But they don’t respect ours.

    It was a rant about douchebag agencies – no matter where on the line they fall – and less/not at all about ripping agencies that aren’t ad agencies (unless they try to steal our work 😉

  4. DailyBiz – not only did this post make you look like an arrogant jerk, you’re also wrong.

    While I will admit there are plenty of below-the-line hack agencies out there trying to do above-the-line stuff, that doesn’t mean they’re all like that.

    I’ve worked for promotions agencies, DM shops, interactive shops – as well as plenty of general agencies (I’m an ACD at one right now). I ran my own (small) general agency for 4 years and I’ve done plenty of national brand campaigns, TV spots, etc.

    So when I was at a promotions agency, are you trying to say I suddenly forgotten how to do above-the-line ads? When I was at a DM shop, did my ability to think of a brand campaign disappear?

    Don’t try and spin your post to say you were just ranting about “douchebag agencies.” Your first sentence of the last paragraph says it all. You’re saying that if you’re below-the-line, you aren’t capable of doing brand work. And that’s bull***t.

  5. Interactive_Dude

    @dailybiz: word, and I hear you. We’re on the same page, I think I just used your rant to make a rant of my own. I’ve had big and small agencies try to steal shit from me and it’s always horrible. That’s great that you got to call them on it and sit in on the meeting. Wish I could do that in those situations instead of having to play nice with the EVP megadouche that keeps trying to steal my sites.

  6. @MattM – I’ve actually worked below-the-line too…if you are an agency that has a specific focus then don’t you think you should stick to the focus and play nice with other agency partners?

    I’m not saying that it is impossible for, say, a promotions shop to do brand work but it’s a lot less likely that they will be able to do as good of a job as an agency that specializes in it the same way that my ad agency just doesn’t do digital the way that a focused interactive shop can. We just can’t.

    Well, we just can’t consistently enough to take over that business.

    And agencies that pull shit like presenting print ads when they’re tasked with brochures are pulling a slimly little backhanded move.

    Yeah, maybe I went over-the-top and ripped on below-the-line agencies in a way that they didn’t deserve (though again I tried to say that they were as important a part of the marketing mix as an ad agency) and that is down purely to unbridled anger at this “partner” agency that was trying to shank us for our part of the business.

    I’m not an asshole.

    At least not in person.

  7. I don’t know – I guess I just see it as part of business and may the best agency win. It happens all the time. Of course you don’t want to have to continually defend your account from hordes of agencies who want to steal it from you. But can you blame a company for wanting to get more revenue? Especially these days?

    If they want to waste time and energy doing print ads when they’re asked to do brochures, let them. If they’re as bad as you say they are, they’re no threat anyway.

    But in almost every agency I’ve worked for, we always try to deliver something above and beyond the assignment. If they ask for print and online, we’ll show them that – plus a DM idea, or an event, or a social networking idea or whatever it is that makes sense for their brand.

    The one caveat I do have is that payback’s a bitch. If you’re an agency who is constantly trying to muscle in on the business of other agency partners don’t be surprised if, when you least expect it, those partners go behind your back and push you out of the business.

  8. Well, dailybiz, I don’t think you’re an asshole. But you are wrong on so many levels with this one. I completely concur with Interactive_Dude. I’ve also seen it happen while working at multicultural, promotional, direct marketing, guerrilla and even advertising agencies. And I mean I’ve seen it happen from the other end—the big ad agencies show up with ideas for the below-the-line shops. Hell, I’ve even worked at general market ad agencies where we’d show up with work to usurp the below-the-liners. And of course, they show up with work to compete against the other general market ad agencies—even when the assignment has been given to another shop. You obviously don’t have big agency/big client experience. For example, clients like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Verizon, etc. have multiple big agencies on their rosters. Every project is a virtual shootout. The brochure shop you encountered probably didn’t really think they could knock you off. They likely figured to defend themselves in the event that you showed up with brochures. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, friend. I didn’t think you sounded like an arrogant big agency person. I thought you sounded like an inexperienced ghetto agency dweller. Sorry.

  9. I’ve never heard of an agency that concentrates on brochures. I still have much to learn.

  10. @MattM – I get what you’re saying and it makes sense…you do what to provide the best possible thinking to a client and in this day and age that’s often going beyond traditional buckets. But there is a difference between that and an agency that consistently seems to be trying to get your piece of the pie.

    To those agencies, you said it best: payback’s a bitch.

    @Big Leaguer – You have a good point too…agencies stealing each other’s work (or at least trying to) is sort of par for the course in most relationships (which is enough fodder for a spin-off post of why clients ask their agencies to play nice but in a zero-sum kind of way those that play nice with those that don’t always lose in the end and the client doesn’t care).

    I like your “inexperienced ghetto agency dweller” and while I have spent some time at ghetto agencies, I also have experience on big brands at name agencies…I’ve just never worked on a brand as a roster agency. I’ve always been at a place where my agency has been their one and only.

    Or at least we thought we were their one and only.

    @David Burn – Thank you for the link and I guess there is an agency for everything.

  11. I guess i don’t understand why your agency is outsourcing collateral when you could do it yourself and do a 10 times better job on it more quickly than the “partner” you describe. I mean, you have writers, art directors, and designers…do their fingers get bloody if they work on collateral? Or, more likely, they’re just one-dimensional?

    Along with lots of stunning brand campaigns, i’ve done a fair amount of collateral, promotions, events, and interactive in my career. And I assure you, they’re all a creative opportunity as well as an opportunity to broaden your skills and establish a better relationship with the client.

  12. You’re lucky. Most major clients have separate agencies for every separate item (branding, digital, promotions, event, multicultural, brochures, etc.). The truth is, few agencies—especially the ones hyping themselves as fully integrated—can offer best-in-class services in every area. I’ll bet your current agency would struggle to produce a brochure and make it both professional and profitable. I’m certain the digital shops I’ve worked at could kick your agency’s ass in that area too. But you’re no different than any other ad agency. We’re all struggling to figure out how to get stuff done and stay in the black. Cheers.

  13. @Big Leaguer – I took your comment to mean that the clients you worked on took a Budweiser or P&G-style model where they had multiple agencies of the same function shooting out all the time.

    I have worked on clients with, say, separate promotions, multicult, event, etc agencies, but luckily for me at least usually the agencies focused on their area of expertise and much of the work was led by the ad agency.

    You are absolutely right about few agencies (any?) being able to offer best-in-class service in every area. I am sure that your agency would kick my agency’s ass in digital…and we’ve been hyping our digital capability for years despite its continuing stats as laughable.

    That’s why we don’t pull underhanded shit like turning a creative presentation into a capabilities pitch to undermine another agency.

    We stick to advertising. Which we’re very good at.

  14. @Gymkata – We aren’t outsourcing collateral…like any agency, we would jump at the chance – fairly presented – to do more for this client/brand. But, our client has a relationship with this other shop and that is the work that they do.

  15. I guess maybe I’m looking at it from the perspective of very small, creative-driven agencies i’ve worked at, but i’ve worked on a little bit of everything-direct mail, coupons, catalogues, sell sheets, events, brochures, white papers, p.r., promotions, interactive, print, radio, tv, and even a book. I’ve never worked at a shop where everything’s divided up…

  16. Actually, they do both. They have a roster of branding shops and rosters of “below-the-line” agencies too. It gets even crazier on the local level.

  17. Lets go a stage further. in the real world, we have design agencies and ad agencies. In the closed shop virtual world of digital, everyone who has ever designed a website gets the role of buliding ads at some point, and then gets disappointed when no-one clicks on them (if they care at all). Lets be honest, there are half a dozen digital ad agencies in the UK, the rest should stick to making websites, because that is what they are good at. and where does the “line” exist in on-line anyway when you are mesauring brand with a response-based metric…?

  18. Pingback: How do digital designers market themselves? « Nothing to Hide?

  19. Guys.. I really don’t think that he was slamming below-the-line firms… I think he was just complaining about some idiot that was trying to steal his business. It’s a legitimate concern when dealing with another firm. He might of came off rude in the post.. but in context it makes perfect sense… wouldn’t you be like WTF if someone came in trying to steal your business?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s