Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Pile & Company Process the Usual Pile of ____.

So I hear that L.L. Bean is having an agency review after deciding to part ways with Martin/Williams. With the full understanding that inviting our firm to pitch the account would be about as likely as Dick Cheney joining the Democrats, I decide to send an email to L.L. Bean in the hope it might find its way to a sympathetic individual. This is what the email said:


Another ad agency, by the very nature of its business model, will be a lot like your last agency. Not necessarily bad, but not especially great either.

The challenges in modern communications are bigger than Martin-Williams. Or another agency creation of WPP or Omnicom or Interpublic.

The problem is that consumers are seeking dialogue and agencies are providing advertising.

I know. I worked at multi-national agencies in New York as a copywriter. I was the creative director and a partner at an agency here in Michigan.

Today, I run a company that does a lot more than advertising — podcasts, blogs, catalogs, uniforms. Sure, we do advertising, but we only do it when it's going to be effective. Our focus is on enthusiast marketing — snow and skate, craft beer, acoustic guitars are a few of our accounts. We believe that it requires different tactics and tone to reach people who are passionate about something.

What's more, since we've always felt that advertising people typically fail to understand the challenges of running a business that has to sell products, we're launching our own line of steel furniture next week.

Fact is, I think most clients don't need one agency anymore. Marketing departments are now run by thinkers who can form strategies and lead execution. They would be well-served by choosing the right partners according to the demands of each project.

I realize these are all probably points you've considered in the past and that you may have good reasons for ignoring all of them. But L.L. Bean is a company I've always admired and I decided to send along my thoughts.

I hope you'll read my blog and visit our web site — they're in my email signature. And while it would be a giant leap to go from an Omnicom shop to pursuing creative projects with an independent in the Midwest, I hope you'll call to talk about it.


Dean Gemmell
President, Black Lab Five

I wrote the note in five minutes. I didn't give it another thought until a few days later, when I received a voice mail message from the very sweet and polite Nadira Vallee at Pile & Company, the consultant handling the review process for L.L. Bean.

Poor woman. She was surely annoyed that she was forced to follow up after someone at Bean had forwarded my email, yet she maintained her impeccably professional demeanor. After some phone tag, we connected. As I said, she is a lovely and polite woman.

She reviewed the the criteria for agencies (full-service, integrated, global, all-knowing) that Pile & Company — pile is a rather unfortunate noun in a company name, isn't it? — had established with L.L. Bean. Of course, our agency failed to measure up and we were quickly dispatched. She was, however, willing to engage in some spirited discussion about what L.L. Bean really needed.

"You see," I said, "I think Martin-Williams is a fine agency. I think Mullen before them is a fine agency that did plenty of fine ads. So it seems to me that L.L. Bean may not really need an ad agency that makes money by producing lots of ads. Perhaps instead of herding together another flock of agencies (Crispin! Get Crispin in this thing, dammit!) to pitch the business, you should talk to your client about handling their business in a different way. Maybe they're just not right for an agency relationship."

Nadira, who I must stress once again was most lovely and polite, responded to my volley with the usual talk of integration needs and scope and so forth. Then she invited me to add our agency to their agency directory called Agency Compile . Which, of course, I was unable to do because I refuse to use Internet Explorer and wondered how a search firm in an industry dominated by Apple could insist on IE compatibility for a site. After some back and forth with their webmaster, he added us to their directory himself but the site would not allow me edit our profile. (Even in Firefox, I might add. I also noticed that Pile offered premium directory status for a, ahem, stipend. I noticed this fact, of course, after polite Nadira's talk about the rich tradition of ethics and integrity at Pile.)

At this point, it seemed best to cut my losses. I asked to be removed from the directory.

So here's my beef. And yes, I realize it's been a long journey to arrive at it. If L.L. Bean motors through two above average agencies, would it not be wise for a review consultant to suggest a different approach? The agency model is quite effective for many marketers, but old L.L. may not be among them. I'm quite sure their marketing department could handle working with several shops on different projects to reach their many different — hikers, skiers, canoeists, suburban Moms who go for walks — demographic groups. What's more, they're a catalog company that sends me a big, multi-page ad called the L.L. Bean catalog at least once a month. Will another series of ads from another ad agency be the solution? Sweet Nadira even mentioned that an invited agency would need direct mail capabilities. Please, lead me to the agency that will show America's venerable catalog retailer how to do direct mail.

I think someone should measure the length of client-agency relationships created by the various search firms. And the sales/share results that were produced. I doubt search firms produce tenures that are any better than clients who proceed without them.

Even worse, they're simply recycling the age-old "new agency" solution. Galling, when companies like Bean, with moderate marketing budgets and diverse audiences, need new thinking on communication partners.


Anonymous Danny G said...

"Please, lead me to the agency that will show America's venerable catalog retailer how to do direct mail."

Be careful what you wish for, Dean--that sounds a long, fruitless journey.

Your comments are right on. Keep telling it like it is. Hopefully, the smart marketers will realize what you have to offer.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Black Lab Five said...

Thanks for the encouragement. And thanks to David for the post over at Ad Pulp. For anyone who doesn't know this site, it's a really, honest refreshing take on the ad business. There's a link to it in the nav bar.

Thanks again, David and Danny.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Dave J. said...

Bean using an outside agency to select a new ad agency? That's like sending out an RFQ and only being allowed to talk to the purchasing agent who only has a list of specs to meet.

Maybe they do have the strategic vision you yearn for, and the agency is just a necessary part of it. But without talking to their marketing department directly, one will never know.

9:24 AM  
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