If you've ever seen the show "Mad Men" then your idea of what the advertising industry is like probably includes stunning board rooms, perfectly hemmed suits, teams of risk-taking creatives, and of course, big brilliant ad campaigns.
According to Mark Beeching, the former Global Chief Creative Officer of Digitas, one of the largest and most well known advertising agencies in the world, that couldn't be farther from the truth.
Beeching, otherwise known (according to Forbes) as one of the true "Mad Men" of Madison Avenue, has built an impressive portfolio having worked for some of the biggest brands all over the world.
Now, he wants out--or better said, he wants to work inside/out.
According to Mark, everything in the marketing landscape has changed except the agency business model itself. He says that the traditional advertising agency model is killing creativity and limiting new opportunities for clients, because of billable hours. With billable hours in place, the agency becomes concerned with how many hours can be billed times the maximum hourly rate, which isn't always in the best interest of the client.
Instead of working for any of the big agencies, Mark has rounded up a team of what he likes to call "entrepreneurial and un-reformable rebels" to create a new type of advertising agency: Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious [BGO].
To learn more about BGO and discuss the current state of the industry, I sat down with Mark to chat. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Nicolas Cole: Let's dive right in. Why don't you share, from your perspective, what has happened to the advertising industry as a whole over the past few decades?
Mark Beeching: Just go and read the garbled, even bizarre, truly bizarre mess trying to explain the meaning of 'Advertising Agency' in Wikipedia. This isn't the fault of Wikipedia. The entry captures better than I can the complete confusion for clients about the word 'agency.' Whose agent is the agency? The usage goes back to J. Walter Thompson (one of the original Madison Avenue agencies), being an agent on behalf of the New York Times, selling advertising space. Since then, we have gone on adding and adding new channels, platforms, and marketing approaches without ever fundamentally examining the agency function itself or how agencies work together. It's a mess. For an industry purporting to be great at innovation and communication, we have failed miserably when it comes to reinventing ourselves in any cogent and substantive way.
Somewhere along the line, a messy agency landscape was made so much worse by putting the suits in charge, while creatives are left unsupervised to their own devices. It is a scary disconnect between the work and the numbers. Nothing personal against those suits running the agencies. Many are my friends. Good friends. But wow, how different from the original entrepreneurial Mad Men. The pioneers of the modern ad era like David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, or Lester Wunderman were all idea guys. And business guys. They shaped the work and the industry. The business managers worked for them--not the other way around. Shaping the industry was much too important to be left to the suits. And the ideas too important to be left to the creatives alone.
Agencies have inherited the 'Mad Men' model, aspiring to their dress sense perhaps but not inspired by them to subvert and reinvent the industry all over again. Rebellion and ambition have been reduced to startups planning how they can get bought up by one of the holding companies.
NC: Why do you think that is?
MB: Billable hours! And commission on billings! Our twin-headed task masters. It is a brutally obvious truth that goes largely unsaid. This is not a difficult or brilliant insight. Just an ignored one.
You know what? We achieved a lot at Digitas. I am really proud of what we achieved during my 10 years there--to a point. But take the NewFronts, an annual marketing conference hosted by Digitas. Having pioneered and created a new space for brands and content creators to conspire and collaborate, the agency ultimately fell short of radical change. Because we had to somehow reverse-engineer the new opportunities into old billable hours. We had to keep the factory busy. Much of our most successful and astonishing breakthrough work, like an UNSTAGED or Small Business Saturday for American Express, simply failed to pay the bills. It was done despite the business model. Not because of it. Digitas is no different in this respect from any other great agency. And I still hugely respect what they do. But it is both not enough and too much for the modern CMO.
NC: And so what inspired BGO? How is BGO, as an agency, any different?
MB: Well, I'd like to say we come up with better ideas at BGO because we are more creative - and we are of course! But the critical thing is we are simply free to see and shape better ideas, which is to say obvious and simple ideas, because we have blown up the bias and strictures of the legacy agency model.
We are married to no one channel, platform, innovation, or marketing mantra - be it a TV spot, web build, or big data. We don't push full service surround sound 360 degree integration either! And not because we claim to be channel agnostic in some wishy-washy way. No. We push nothing at clients because we operate and make money in fundamentally different ways from legacy agencies. It always comes down to the money in the end. And we have nothing to push. No axe to grind. No bias. Free instead to do what works and what we believe, not push what we do.
NC: How do you make your money then?
MB: Well, first and foremost, as entrepreneurs not agency suits, we love to have skin in the game. We favor open, innovative win-wins with clients over the dubious (often fraudulent?) math of billable hours or the murky commissions of programmatic buying.
We are born of the collaborative economy and back our shared ideas to generate new brand & business value. So we embrace shared risk and reward with clients in a variety of ways - from pinning significant fees to agreed performance criteria through to joint ventures with clients and shared or even full-risk ownership and funding of new IP by BGO. We'd rather apply our inventive business brains to new win-wins with clients than endless wrangling over budgets and billable hours or haggling over commissions. Or pocketing discounts for that matter. So, we make money with business creativity and skin in the game on top of a flat fee retainer. That's how we build win-wins.
NC: So your new model is a new financial model?
MB: Yes. But this financial model unlocks a host of other changes. Radical changes. It feels like cheating to be freed from so much baggage. Above all, it means we can pivot from pushing stuff at clients to working inside/out for them. We can shape, buy, and orchestrate marketing for them working upstream of the usual agency turf wars. We are free to see and get done for clients ground-breaking ideas that are brilliantly simple and obvious. Exactly the kind of no-brainer ideas that get lost downstream in old school bias, finances, and operations.
In fact, we insist everything we do passes the obvious test. Hence our name. Because blindingly obvious ideas tend to be the really valuable ones. Once pointed out.
NC: When you say you buy and orchestrate marketing for clients, where does this leave other agencies with traditional models and skills?
MB: It is a messy agency marketplace for clients but, frankly, a buyer's market too. Working inside/out, passing on all bought-in costs net, does wonders for our relations with other agencies of all flavors and persuasions. We orchestrate and partner with transparency whatever agencies and non-agency outside resources it takes to get ground-breaking work done. We help them to add real value for clients in purposeful ways - not more cost and confusion. And innovative marketing that really works for clients is never a zero-sum game for the agencies taking part.
Meanwhile, our un-agency-like model enables BGO itself to stay outstandingly small and agile. And that means no factory to keep busy or management pyramids to sit on. So all members of what we call the BGO CORE work on... the work!
NC: But you can't be totally free of bias. Even BGO has an axe to grind?
MB: You got me. I lied. We do have a bias. A serious one, in fact. Having nothing to push frees us to represent ruthlessly the customers' needs, voice, and brand perceptions deep inside the client organization. The most important and valuable way for us to work inside/out for clients and help them cope with the messy marketing and agency landscape is to organize ideas and action around the real perceptions, needs, habits, and bias of their customers.
Kill billable hours and the customer lives!