General Electric's Judy Hu knows that cutbacks at roster agencies mean "fewer people, which generally speaking means fewer ideas." But her company's needs haven't changed. GE still demands breakthrough work at breakneck speed.
"We're driving [roster shops] a lot harder," acknowledges Hu, global executive director of advertising and branding, during a client panel discussion at the recent Mirren New Business Conference in New York. "Faster, leaner, meaner. We used to have 10 weeks for [creative] development. This time, we gave a week and a half."
So how, exactly, are agencies keeping up? Beyond working longer hours, they're traveling to fewer meetings, sending fewer, more senior executives to such meetings, teleconferencing when appropriate and generally embracing new ways of operating, according to industry leaders.
"At times like this, what you have to do with your clients is reassess what the priorities are," says Andrew Robertson, worldwide CEO of BBDO, GE's lead creative shop. "What are the things that add greatest value for the client? …Agree on those."
Some agencies, for example, no longer provide overviews on the advertising and media tactics of a client's competitors or, at least, do them less frequently. Many clients already have research on such topics in-house, explains Steve Harty, chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York.
And to avoid mistakes in the current fast-paced environment, some shops have turned to project management to better track and facilitate workflow from brief to execution, says Nancy Hill, CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
Still, the stress and strain of a longer, more work-intensive day-often without an increase in the agency fee-creates a "tough situation on both sides," says TBWA worldwide CEO Tom Carroll. "You want to give your clients as much service as possible. … You want to be as reliable as you've always been. But then there are the realities that you have to pay people and there are only so many hours in the day."
Cutbacks in travel budgets at both agencies and clients have triggered questions about how many meetings are necessary and who should attend. As an alternative, some agencies are relying more on technology to interact with clients.
"Technology has been a great enabler in driving efficiency. We're using brand-asset systems and Internet tools to show and share creative work," says Publicis U.S. CEO Susan Gianinno. "Face-to-face meetings are no longer as necessary, which is a shame in some ways since young people used to be able to learn in those meetings. Now meetings are more goal oriented."
In general, the cast at in-person sit-downs these days is smaller and more senior, agency leaders say. "Clients are asking for fewer, more accountable people," says Rich Stoddart, U.S. president of Leo Burnett. "We have to be more focused, more dedicated and less fragmented, with tighter lead teams that communicate well and move together in the right direction."
Robertson says advances in teleconferencing systems have made those interactions more feasible, less expensive and faster. Key clients such as Bank of America and Hewlett-Packard have invested in them as well, which, in the case of BofA, enables BBDO New York execs to walk to a local BofA office and connect with client officials there as well as in Boston and Charlotte, N.C.
That said, there's no substitute for human interaction, particularly at crucial junctures in the creative development process. "Video conferencing and those substitutes are just that," says Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers. "They may become more prevalent in order to enhance productivity, but everybody quote, unquote prefers to be face-to-face. It's the most accommodating, most effective way to get things done."