The Ad Industry Asks Clients to Embrace Change Daily. But They Can't Change Themselves

A new model for solving business problems

Five years ago, I left advertising for a while. I did some startups with my son Alexandre and continued to reinvent our dog app 3MillionDogs. That taught me a lot, mostly what not to do. 

Taking a break from the business was eye-opening to say the least, mostly because of having published a piece four years ago about how the industry needed a fundamental reboot. Lots of reads of it, lots of hand-wringing, lots of agreement that it needed to change. Cue crickets here. No change. 

In October 2018, my business partner Jack Harding and I made a speech to 40 owners of small to midsized agencies from around the world here in Toronto. Our topic was change—real change and the need not just to be aware of it but to embrace it. We even shared our then ever-evolving new model for an entirely game-changing take on what was needed to address clients' needs today. Not a single person from that group engaged us in any way after the speech. Some hand-wringing but mostly crickets. Again, no change. 

Having worked for Jay Chiat back in the day, in the original New York office and then in Seattle and finally Toronto, I learned a lot. 

The big thing I learned was constant re-invention, personally and professionally. It inspired the philosophy behind my first agency that I started after Jay fired me: no time sheets, no account people and a very flat structure focused on strategy and creative. It worked. Biggest highlights? When AdAge named us International Agency of the Year after seven years in business and the sheer joy of having fun with an amazing group of people. 

In the last three years, a few clients approached me asking for help—help in defining their overall business strategy as well as how they could speak to consumers and even their own employees in our media fractured world. 

One was a global multinational that didn't want to engage their various "aircraft carrier" size agencies in the different markets. Too much time. Too many people. Too many traditional ideas. And too much money. They wanted a small team of black ops laser-focused on the job at hand and with tactics that defied traditional logic but could work, often because they weren't traditional. 

There were others we worked with as well. All frustrated clients looking for a different way of doing things. Clients with real business problems that weren't going to be solved with traditional ideas. They needed a bold new model. Something truly different. A real change. I talked to a lot of people about what that might be: agency owners, creative directors, juniors, clients, mid-level creatives, production people and more clients. And I read a lot.  

The agency world is depressed. A recently published piece out of the U.K. carried out anonymously by business design and talent consultancy The Blueprint said agencies are responding to disruption through cost-cutting rather than business transformation—a state of play that in effect means instead of working smarter, everyone is working longer. 

"There's the mismanagement of time. Because we sell time, we often take too much time to do things." Time sheets had made most "agencies" more like law firms than anything even faintly resembling a place to come up with breakthrough ideas. In fact, one agency executive told the researchers: "The industry is stuck in a vicious cycle where everyone talks about change, but no one is prepared to actually change." And all of the joy is gone. 

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Most important, though, clients didn't know where to turn to get solutions to overall business problems, not just traditional advertising problems. No agency or consultancy in the world jumped out as being truly different in how they were approaching a client's business issues. We wanted to change that. 

Our model is simple but unique for a number of reasons. We listen to a client's issues and decide if we're in a position to help. If we can help, we hold a half-day off-site session with every stakeholder and listen, ensuring that anything and everything that may be relevant—data, employee feedback, fail stories—is shared. After that, we create a kind-of brief and share it with our "brain-trust" of C-suite partners. 

Really smart people who may be in, or have been in, a similar industry. Some may be more strategic types, some supply chain, some in-store experts, some e-commerce, and some straight-out creative. Whoever we think might help our clients think differently about how they might solve their problems.

Then it gets fine-tuned and we present nine (or more) ideas—ones that are sometimes immediately ready to go and others that are longer-term business solutions. And again, what's particularly different is that our clients aren't duty bound to have us execute the ideas. We present them in a way that's far enough along to allow our clients to take them back to their own existing partners to execute. Or we can do it—their choice.

Our pricing model is different, too, first of all because it's up front. On our site. Again, a difference. Too often clients said they would hand their business to a firm and then would come the dreaded fee discussion. And the question would be, "What's your budget?" Not unlike your dentist asking the same question just before she pulls your tooth. 

Our research revealed a genuine need. Sometimes a client simply wanted to get a reboot on their brand. A truly fresh set of eyes. Based on a frustration that sales had been disappointing with a particular product or service. Or a need to find a way to refocus their organization. Clients were searching for someone to come in and do a really efficient dive into their business with a stealth team of experts. Not in nine months, but in nine days. (I know, seems crazy, but urgency begets creativity). 

We provide the kind of thinking that might not be available through their traditional partners. They may not have the resources or the kinds of partners we can bring to the table to bring them actionable, fresh, strategically sound solutions. And we only bring in who we need when we need them. So, given that efficiency, we charge accordingly. Another big difference.  

Lastly, we are most interested in doing business with doers. Big companies. Small startups. And everything in between. People frustrated that they're standing still while the rest of the runners pass them by. People who believe they have a great product or service that isn't getting its due. We love nothing more than helping a client reframe and reimagine themselves in a way that supercharges their organization and gets their business back on track. Clients that embrace change. Real change. 

Last but not least, we have a soft spot for charities/companies that are trying to save the world. So, they get a discount. 

Geoffrey Roche
Geoffrey Roche is co-founder of Disruptincy, a new Toronto-based agency.