Syzygy #10: The agency problem, cool words, & a football balls-up
4 min read

Syzygy #10: The agency problem, cool words, & a football balls-up

Please enjoy Syzygy #10. Do share with friends - they can subscribe below.

The problem with agencies

Since leaving my previous job I've been reflecting on how I performed and where I could improve. One specific event keeps nagging me.

We were working with an agency to create videos for a campaign. The pitching stage went well, we liked the ideas they had. Yet as things began to get produced, a familiar sinking feeling came back: their work felt rushed, half cooked.

It didn't feel like they'd properly thought things through. Not properly checked if the messaging made sense and was logical.

It constantly felt like we were on a clock. The agency kept moving their own deadlines forward and ours back.

What came out in the end was good enough. But is 'good enough', good enough...?

"If you want it done, Go. If not, Send."

No one will care about your project as much as you do.

I know I can be naive because I often take people at face value. Agencies will promise the best product, but what is delivered rarely meets expectations.

What nags at me is that I've experienced this over and over again, yet always think "it'll be different this time."

It never is. And that's because of the the principal-agent problem.

The principal is the owner, the agent is the employee.

You'll meet the owners or heads of an agency, see that they care and understand the work you do and what you want. Your values feel aligned because you will both benefit by working together.

Challenges approach when the work starts and the agents step in.

Their motives aren't bad, of course. It's just that their project aims can rarely be aligned with yours.

It's their job to get clients through the door and to deliver projects for a profit.

They have ten other projects like yours on their desk and they are under pressure to deliver quickly. Even when they want to care, they won't have the time or budget to give your work the love it deserves.

Often it leads to a lot of outsourcing too - the agents of agents step in.

A video is edited by another company in Italy. The graphic design is done in Thailand. The copywriting is done in Canada. They have no idea who you are - yet they'd likely give their right arm to work directly with you.

I'm not chiding agencies for focusing on profit - they have to to survive. However, if our incentives and values aren't aligned, the outcome will rarely be satisfactory.

So what will I do in future?

As much as possible, I'll go for small teams or, even better, one-person shows.

You can hold them accountable, and their incentives will always be more closely aligned to yours because you need each other.

Of course, there are trade offs.

Larger agencies have more people to get things done faster. They have networks and brands. They have more hands so can turn around things faster. They have multiple people to draw on creative ideas from.

A one person show could disappear at any moment.

But I've decided that the trade-offs are worth it.

With a one-person show, you're dealing directly with the principal. They will always care more because the buck stops with them. The relationships and interactions that can be built over time will also be more beneficial to both parties.

That, to me, seems worth it.

Little big ideas: Fingers first, brain later

When it comes to almost anything in communications and marketing, editing is the most important thing.

The most difficult thing? Getting started.

I always prefer to sit down and let my fingers think for me first.

Once some ideas are down - no matter how silly and basic they are - I can then get to work on fixing it.  

"Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.”
Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way."
— John Swartzwelder, writer for The Simpsons (and much more)

Here's a gorgeous visual example from artist Edward Hopper.

A PR own goal - Podcast

How wrong can PR agencies get it? Look no further than the recent football debacle in Europe.

It's a lesson in not understanding true fans, and in being utterly tone deaf to the sentiments and values of your most important asset (you can read it here).

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