Don Draper is Right About Client-Agency Relationships

On Sunday’s Mad Men season finale, I saw (once again) art imitating life. If you aren’t watching the show, allow me to fill you in. The series follows the lives and loves of advertising execs in 1960s America. In Sunday’s episode, Duck – the guy who heads up Accounts (aka client service) and Don – the guy who heads up Creative, espouse their business philosophies during a contentious merger meeting.

Duck’s philosophy is that the message is less important than the medium. He wants to build the agency into a media buying shop where the focus is persuading clients to buy up as much advertising real estate (broadcast, print, radio) as they can so the agency earns commission dollars. He doesn’t care what the product’s message is, he just wants to make money on buying the ad space. Or, as richj25 on the imdb message board said: “Duck wants to solicit ideas from the clients and then have Creative format those ideas into whatever medium the client wishes to use.”

Don’s philosophy is that the role of the agency is to show clients how they should sell their products by developing a message that will resonate with their audience. He believes clients expect agencies to deliver a strategic campaign and it is the message that determines the medium. As Don’s character said Sunday night, “I sell products, not advertising.”

I found this little debate fascinating (partly because Duck’s temper tantrum was so fun to watch!) and partly because this reflects the state of client-agency relationships today. Whether in advertising, PR or marketing, clients often tell their agencies, “this is who we are and what we want to say, we just want you to say it for us.” And, hey – I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes clients are right on with their message. But, a lot of times they aren’t. A lot of times clients can’t see the competitors for the trees. Quite often, clients are so focused on why they love their products that they cannot apply a truly objective view of it; they cannot truly see customer objections/concerns/confusion or the competitor advantages against which they must differentiate. This is why agencies are needed.

Again, whether were talking about advertising, PR or marketing, the same principle holds: the message must dictate the medium and the whole point of hiring an agency is to secure that objective and experienced eye for persuasion — to allow us to develop that message. If clients want their agencies to be accountable for more than just brand awareness; if they want their agencies to truly move that needle in terms of sales and deliver a measurable ROI, they need to remember why they’ve hired us in the first place. And for making this argument so crystal clear Sunday night, I have to say that, apart from socially, Don Draper, you are my hero!

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