Ad Agency’s Solution to Client Pulling Work In-House Sounds Like the Freelancer Model…

It’s inevitable in an economic downturn. Clients using pricey creative agencies dump them and pull the work in-house. OR outsource it, as we’ve happily discussed in this forum (and elsewhere: check out the GREENS course at this link) to a more economical, low-overhead writer and designer team.

Well, thanks again to commercial freelancer Robin Halcomb (who steered me to a cool resource I included in a comment on my last post) for bringing a most intriguing article to my attention. Entitled “In-house and Outsourced Aren’t the Only Options for Your Clients,” and penned by Sharon Napier, the piece first appeared in Advertising Age on 11/2/09.

The premise was simple – and one with all sorts of positive implications for folks like us. Napier, an ad agency professional, established the challenge:

Losing business because a client takes its work in-house can be a very frustrating challenge for a shop that’s put its heart and soul into coming up with innovative ideas. But what agency folks sometimes forget is that a client’s decision to go in-house usually isn’t driven by creativity or quality of work, but instead by the need for a new operating model, lower costs or faster turnaround. We didn’t want to stand by and watch our clients take that work in-house, nor was it in their best interest for us to try to force-fit it into our standard agency model.

Now, read this next part about her proposed solution to this quandary, and tell me if it doesn’t have a familiar ring…

So, a few years ago, we created a second model, one we call the “in-house outsource,” or studio model. How does it work? Like a traditional model, the clients have a dedicated team to serve their business, one that’s steeped in the client’s brand guidelines, process and work flow. However, for the studio model, the process is streamlined.

There are no account executives or trafficking positions; clients work directly with a designer who is responsible for every aspect of the project, from the first request to the work getting out the door, much like having an on-staff designer. The studio team works as an agency within an agency — it has its own leader, its own process, its own job description and career path.

Sounds a whole lot like a simple freelance copywriter/graphic designer team, no? Napier describes a model that meets a client’s need for lower costs and faster turnaround – something many clients in our world have been getting from talented writer/designer teams for a long time.

So, these creative pros know what clients want and have started bending their business model to deliver just that. With us? No bending required. That’s already who we are. And this new evolution on the part of agencies just reaffirms – in case you had any doubts – the fundamental legitimacy of the freelance model.

Of course, Napier’s premise appears to cover several scenarios: 1) clients pulling in-house ALL the business they’re doing with an agency; or 2) clients pulling certain pieces that many agencies long ago deemed not worth pursuing.

As I’ve pointed out in The Well-Fed Writer, while we commercial writers are unlikely to pick up the high-profile branding work from Fortune 500 firms that’s been the domain of Big Advertising (mainly because, let’s face it, the typical writer/designer team can’t deliver everything a full-service ad agency can…), we can certainly cover the, 1) the “collateral” projects agencies don’t want or aren’t set up to handle; and 2) branding work for relatively smaller firms with the bucks to hire that agency, but which are now tightening their belts.

Of course, Napier’s unspoken message – one that can’t help but elicit a smile – is this: Given the client exodus many in our industry have experienced of late, we can’t afford to be as elitist as before. Translation: We need to figure out how to hang on to this business we previously turned up our noses at. And give them credit for adapting successfully, as Napier’s firm certainly has.

Though you have to wonder whether Napier’s clients, once they get a taste of the lower-priced, streamlined business model on some of their work, don’t start wondering – however illogically, perhaps – why that same model can’t be applied to their other work. Something we commercial freelancers, given our cornerstone value proposition, will never have to wrestle with.

Have you run into a similar scenario with your business?

Have you benefited from a client’s belt-tightening to replace a more expensive creative resource?

Have you approached creative firms (e.g., ad agencies, marketing design firms, etc.), to pick up work they don’t want to deal with (and haven’t adapted to be able to handle)?

Is this giving you ideas you hadn’t previously considered?

Writing This Bad Highlights a Whole Other Writing World

Let’s dispense with weighty commercial writing matters for a moment and have a little comic relief. A few weeks back, an accomplished writer friend of mine sent me a link to an article, along with this note: “Holy crap, this is what passes for writing these days?!”

Here’s the link.

I read it, my jaw slowly dropping, then dashed off a note to the webmaster. I won’t bore you with my entire note, but here are a few snarky highlights:

As a professional copywriter for 16 years, I was appalled that a web site that appears to be a legitimate purveyor of information would actually post such breathtakingly bad, awkward and incoherent writing. Simply put, it makes your site look like a low-rent operation. Why you’d spend what was clearly a pretty penny to create a logo, brand, and attractive-looking site only to fill it with such crap is beyond me. Talk about sabotaging an investment. I’d wager good money you’re paying bad money (what? like $5 an article, perhaps?) for such content. Though, that said, if you’re paying any more than that, you’re getting ripped off.

I actually got a note back from the webmaster, who wrote:

Wow that was some email. But it does come as a reality check to us and I assure you we will try and put out better information in the future. Thanks for the honesty, really. I will review every article before it goes live from now on.

Well, guess what? He actually did revisit it. In fact, the link I sent you is the copy AFTER it was “revisited.” I know, it’s hard to get your arms around the idea that it was actually worse before, but trust me, it was. Here’s an excerpt, untouched. You ready? You sure? Okay, I warned you…

If you want to have a coffee table in your garden or you want to sit there at night then have a rightly sized corner specially designed with a small table and chairs or if you want to have a swing in your garden then have some creeping vines grow on the swing to make it look as if the swing grew there too.

Words fail (in more ways than one…).

My friend tells me sites like these are known as “blog networks” (not “content mills,” that’s something else, though these no doubt pay just as badly) and are largely – you ready for this? – self-edited. And as she put it, “As long as they’re getting the clicks, they’re happy. It’s all about page views in a networked blog.” I don’t even want to get to a point where I actually understand that particular kind of thinking.

One thing quickly becomes clear: what these people do and what we do may both involve quote-unquote writing, but it’s there the similarity ends. Sort of how racing could refer to both what kids do with Tonka Toys and, oh, say, Formula One?

I know, it’s not very nice of me to make fun of bad writers just trying to make a no-doubt bad living in an arena in which they’re a bad fit (or maybe not…). But, just remember this the next time you hear someone saying how hard it is to make a living as a writer with rates so pathetic for writers. No, not all writers making $5 an article are this bad, but when this is how low the bar is in so many places, a decent writer is truly throwing pearls before swine. But hey, they’ve got options. If they don’t choose to exercise them, not my problem.

Ever had any contact with this world in your travels? (Or is this about as foreign to you as Pluto?)

Have you come across some equally bad examples?

What might you tell someone who whines about not being able to make a living writing?

What might you have told the webmaster if you were writing a note?