Why Most Restaurants Need a Better Creative Agency


We all know the importance of breakthrough creative advertising for any brand or category. In the sea of sameness that is the restaurant category, an effective ad campaign is what often separates the industry leaders from the pack.

Today, the restaurant landscape consists of a handful of “haves” and then, hundreds of “have-nots.” The haves are killing the competition: maintaining significant margins, reporting consistent growth and sales increases, attracting strong franchisees and of course, building brand preference and driving volume simultaneously. The have-nots are giving away food (“2 for $20,” etc.), reporting consecutive quarters in the red and struggling to keep their franchisees and/or investment partners at bay.

Millward Brown recently ran a study on award-winning creative work and determined that it is 2,000 times more likely to be effective. I know that marketers generally tend to be leery of creative awards; but, strong creative works.

You can pretty much tell who the haves and have-nots are just by watching TV. Chipotle, Panera, Taco Bell, Subway and Popeye’s are a few restaurant brands killing the competition with breakthrough creative. Particularly impressive are the effects of recent strong creative on formerly stale, struggling brands like Arby’s and Church’s Chicken.

And, the have-nots? Just look at the new McDonald’s work, or Wendy’s, or Burger King’s or Olive Garden’s or Golden Corral’s. Is it bad? No, it’s worse — it’s mediocre. And it all looks the same.

5 tell-tale signs you need a better creative agency:

  • Your ads look and sound like everyone else in the category (wet meat, steaming vegetables, price/item, LTO-message only) and lack strong, memorable creative concepts
  • Your agency has stopped constantly bringing fresh ideas to you; they’ve lost enthusiasm for your business
  • Your agency has continuing employee turnover on your account, particularly in the creative department
  • Your Social Media/Digital Content/Community Management marketing doesn’t translate or connect to sales increases
  • And, of course, you are struggling to maintain strong margins because you are giving food away

Sometimes, even great creative agencies like Wieden + Kennedy and CP+B drop the ball — as they have recently with KFC and Applebee’s respectively. The reason? It’s hard (really hard) to cram a memorable creative concept into the restaurant commercial “formula.” You’ve got to show the food, you’ve got to show the deal…that only gives you a few precious seconds to execute a strong concept as well. I believe this makes the restaurant category the most challenging creatively.

The New Agency Website: What’s working now?

So this is the digital age. You are not just an ad agency anymore. You are now a hybrid, tradigital, Unknown-2
media agnostic, nimble, agile, curating creator of commercial content
. Good for you. Why does your website still look like an ad agency’s?

It’s no great insight that your company’s single most important piece of identity is your website. It’s where you send prospects, clients, search consultants, headhunters and potential employees to learn more about you and what you do. It’s where Google sends anyone who searches your name. It’s probably the most important piece of communications you will ever create. I spend most of my waking life looking at these things. Why am I mostly underwhelmed?

Recently, an old friend called to say he was re-doing his agency’s site and asked if I had any tips. This man, mind you, has one of the most startling imaginations of any creative I have worked with in my 27 years in advertising. In short, a great new site takes a great imagination. So he’s off to a good start. Make sure you appoint your most imaginative minds to your new site. The old site was a “business tool.” The new site is much more than that. It’s your digital persona.

UnknownThe trap is to talk to yourselves. Don’t fall in it. I’ve looked at agency sites from every possible angle: with clients, as a search consultant, as a headhunter, as a recruit and as a biz dev person. I’ve observed what causes your targets to keep clicking (the new site) or opt out (the old site).

Old site:

  • Themeless — No connection of your positioning to any mission, purpose or specialty
  • Words — “About us”…riddled with clichés and pompous agency-speak
  • Pictures — Ads, head shots, office space, ping-pong tables, posers posing for “candid” photos
  • Case studies — “When Acme Corporation came to us, boy were they up shit’s creek. We saved the day with our trademarked processes, brilliant insights and (mediocre) creative, and here’s how…”
  • Bios — “Joe has won every imaginable award on the planet. He loves dogs and look how handsome he is.”
  • TV spots — usually the only moving thing on the site besides that unsettling download onto the landing page
  • CTA — “What are you waiting for? Fill out this generic form below”

New Site:

  • Theme — The site makes an immediate statement and emotional connection to what the agency brand stands for
  • Video — The connection is made through a short agency video that connects the agency’s positioning with the core values of your targets. This is the first thing that comes up front & center on your landing page.
  • Infographics — The most effective way to explain who, you are, what you do and why you do it. “The agency in 60 seconds” is a better link to these than “About us”
  • Creative showcase — don’t “let the work speak for itself”
  • Case studies — 1 minute videos or infographic, beautifully designed
  • Bios — 30-second videos. A great creative opportunity
  • CTA — Again, a video. Close me; in a brilliantly unique & entertaining way.

Now they want to learn more about you. People don’t read websites until they want to buy. They look. They watch. They share. This is the digital age, lest we forget.








The New Agency Credentials Meeting: What’s working now?

So you got a meeting. A prospect has agreed to meet with you or your agency has advanced in a pitch process. Great. Now what? piranha_bites_heart_on_hook_anti_valentines_day_card-r6ca99ffe1882408089e3162ce57ef6b5_xvua8_8byvr_324

The trap is to plan the agenda around your agency’s credentials. Don’t fall in it. I’ve been on both sides of the table: as an agency search consultant for brand marketers and as a business development consultant for agencies. I’ve observed what entices clients to bite (the new meeting) and what causes them to fishtail away (the old way).

Old Way:

  • This is who we are — riddled with clichés and pompous agency-speak
  • This is what we do —  puffed-up agency capabilities and service offerings
  • This is how we work — trademarks, proprietary processes, secret sauces
  • This is the proof (work & case studies) — eyes begin to glaze over by the second case study
  • “Ok, enough about us, let’s talk about you…” — the client is checking their watch and smart phone by now

The best and most effective meetings I’ve been a part of in the past few years (on both sides of the table) begin something like this: The agency leader puts a jump drive on the conference table in front of the client and says, “Here are our credentials, if we have time and you are interested, we can take you through them. But, we’re here to discuss your brand and your business and learn more about your challenges.” Then the meeting proceeds something like this:

New Way:

  • This is who you are (brand video, brand book or manifesto) — the best meetings begin by making an emotional connection with the client. They think, “Wow, they get us.”
  • This is why we like you (missions aligned) — Demonstrate passion, don’t talk about it.
  • This is your customer (and they are us) — Don’t pitch prospects you don’t believe in
  • These are your challenges (truthful) — Address the toughest challenges, the brutal facts
  • These are our ideas for you — Business ideas, marketing ideas not necessarily spec creative
  • “Oh, you want to know more about us? Sure…” — Now you’ve got their attention as they fumble around for the jump drive.

Now they want to see your case studies to see if you have experience in successfully executing similar business/marketing ideas for other clients. Now you have a chance to win their business.

Book Review: WHY IS YOUR NAME UPSIDE DOWN? by David Oakley

51iv1PHz0PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The first time I heard David Oakley‘s voice was in 1993 when I noticed some of his work in the Print Magazine Design Annual. I called him to recruit him for a creative position at Tausche Martin Lonsdorf, then Atlanta’s hottest creative agency.

It was a different era in recruiting — pre-Internet (Prodigy was just bursting on the scene). Recruiters actually called candidates, got to know them and their career goals. Not only did I like Oakley’s work, I liked him as a person. He was a copywriter at TBWA in NYC (pre-Chiat/Day merger) and he had the right mix of big city agency smarts and North Carolina “aw shucks” schoolboy charm. He was a young rocket that I pegged as a rising star.



It was then my mission to attract top creative talent to Atlanta and help build a creative community in the city. It all began with Kurt Tausche, the Minneapolis product and disciple of  Ron Anderson and Tom McElligott. His mission was to build a special agency in Atlanta. UnknownKurt liked Oakley and interviewed him. But, he passed on David and brought on board several other talented creatives: Patrick Scullin, Robbie Vitrano, Chris Schlegel, James Boyce and the inimitable (some may say insufferable) Andrew Payton.

David instead took his formidable talents to Charlotte where. in short order. he co-founded one of the great NC creative agencies of the era: BooneOakley with John Boone.

Kurt recently admitted to me that not hiring David Oakley was one of the biggest regrets of his career.

So when David called earlier this year to tell me that he was publishing a book about his life in Advertising it made me think, “wow, where did those 22 years go?” And he also mentioned that I was in the book.

WHY IS YOUR NAME UPSIDE DOWN? is not a how-to book about copywriting or creativity, like Hey Whipple or Guy Bommarito’s Creative Bones. There are no tips or preachy advice. Instead, it’s an uproarious journey through the industry; an allegory…a coming of age story that ironically climaxes with our phone conversation about an erstwhile client gone awry last year.

Oakley’s not just a copywriter…he’s a  storyteller. His tone has the perfect blend of confidence and self-deprecation. We all have war stories, the magic is in how we tell them. Oakley tells his magically. His book is not just for agency “insiders” — it will benefit any creative entrepreneur and entertain any voyeur of the ad industry. Mad Men was a superficial portrayal of the ad industry of the 60’s & 70’s. Oakley’s book is a real depiction of agency life in the 90’s and 2000’s.

Order it online here and leave it in your bathroom — it is perfect reading for the john.

8 Tips for Hiring a Creative Ad Agency


j6BH-453AYour creative is stale. Your ads don’t break through the clutter. They are not memorable. You waste money on paid media. The agency team that works on your business is constantly changing: a new account director every year, new creative people, new strategists and planners. It seems as if once you get a new group up to speed on your account, they then depart. You feel as if new business is more important to your agency than YOUR business.

Is it any surprise that the same accounts are always in review and the same search consultants are pushing the same mediocre creative agencies? Don’t you think it’s time to fix the pitch process?

Rate of change and the speed of business are at an all-time high. More content was created in h-armstrong-roberts-hands-of-magician-performing-magic-trick-pulling-rabbit-out-of-top-hatthe past two years alone than in the entire history of civilization. Not just marketing content…but content content. Advertising reflects society (when it can lead it). Agencies rush for the next new bright and shiny “paradigm” (ugh…is that the worst word in the business or what?). They seem to be running away from the one thing clients value from them the most: CREATIVITY. Creative chops. Creative bones. The alchemy of taking a strategic brief and creating something mysteriously wonderful: magic. Many agencies have stopped being artists and have become scientists.

Agencies tend to over analyze what they do and what a client wants from them. Account service? Price of entry. Collaboration? Who would NOT collaborate with their client? Strategy? Ah, strategy…I love the intellectual bullies that think a brand is doomed without their insights. Regardless of the category, there is a finite set of strategies that sell anything. And clients sit around every day and kick them around:

  • More for less
  • New and improvedUnknown
  • One of a kind
  • Original, authentic
  • Better experience/service
  • Better stuff/quality
  • Selection
  • Performance
  • Aesthetics (beauty/design)
  • fill in the blank…

But, what most clients cannot do, and will always be at the mercy of creative agencies for is…creative product. If you are still reading this article, your creative product probably doesn’t meet your expectations.

So how do you go about hiring a better creative agency? Here are 8 tips:

  1. Hire a culture, not a process or person — All agency processes are basically the same and they should all be driven by the same singular goal: to get to the best creative work possible. All agencies think they have the best creative talent. But, it is the culture that must be the right fit for your brand. Do they have a mission? Do they live that mission or just talk about it? Does that mission align with your company mission?
  2. Define your company goals and communicate them clearly to prospective agencies — What is success for your company and brand? Do you have a roadmap or a plan to get there? Where does the agency fit in with that plan? Set the expectations early and monitor them often.
  3. Define your required Scope of Work — every good process has a clearly defined, surgical SOW. It is the core of any strong RFP.
  4. Conduct an RFP — Know what it is that you are looking for. Prioritize criteria. Set a process and stick to it. Be decisive in establishing criteria.3fe00259f3f1efd6fb9f0d5d3dfafa73
  5. Require a staffing model — Ask prospective agencies to explain how they specifically plan on servicing your account. Make sure you “interview” the key staffers in the RFP process. Place the most emphasis on the creative team. These are the shoemakers that will make the shoes. Make sure their shoes will attract your target’s feet.
  6. Be transparent — Don’t play games with budgets, Scope, existing research or proprietary methods. Water seeks its own level.
  7. Be inclusive — Your company has many stakeholders. Include them all. Form a “core” selection team but also include a secondary team and bring them in at various points in the review process. Seek their input. Everyone has a valid opinion.
  8. Own the decision, program it for success — Transparency and inclusion are great. But, ultimately ONE person needs to own the decision and live or die with it. Again, be decisive. Hire a consultant, or “marriage counselor” to set expectations for the first 100 days. When agency relationships go bad…they go bad fast. Get over the honeymoon in the first week, and get on to the marriage.

Book Review: Creative Bones by Guy Bommarito

It’s a new year and the holidays are history. The parties are poof. Christmas is kaput. What to do now for fun? I like to pick up a good book and hunker down in front of the fireplace.

UnknownGuy Bommarito has written one on creativity and it should be required reading for anyone that works or wants to work at a creative agency. “Creative Bones: How Creativity Works. No Really.” is interesting NOT because of its stories and anecdotes about creativity; or as a critique of creative work and campaigns (it has both). Its real value is its fact-based, how-to approach…like Creativity for Dummies. Somehow, Bommarito combines a comedic writing style with a Calvinist approach to creativity. And it works. He’s a sly, dry Guy.

The first time I heard Guy Bommarito’s voice was in 1992. He was just named the new ECD of a regional agency with about 100 employees in Austin, TX — GSD&M. They were Longhorns long on ambition to become a great creative agency. They were good — but Guy wanted them to be great. Like Bogusky, his commitment to attracting top talent from the best agencies in America was unwavering.

GSD&M’s creative goal was to do the best broadcast of any agency outside of NY or Chicago. At the time, great print advertising was coming out of Minneapolis and Richmond — both cities had thriving, robust ad communities. So for the first time, great work was being heavily awarded and highly recognized from outside of the major hub cities. But, the big broadcast was still being created in NY and Chicago (and to some degree, San Francisco). There were few agencies doing national TV in the regions — and what little there was didn’t match the creative level of the print coming out of Minneapolis and Richmond.

GSD&M changed that. And Guy Bommarito was the force behind it, with the courage to act upon the vision of recruiting top talent to Austin — a fertile creative Petri dish of a city (Stateimages-51 Capitol, State University, thriving music scene). A lot of guys talked about doing this, and a few (like Doner) were able to produce good broadcast sporadically. But, This Guy was In Love With You if you had a great reel and skin thick enough to be a creative cowboy — you were hired. So in the ensuing years, dozens of Palma people loaded up the Bekins moving van and sought gold (pencils) in them hills of the land of the Longhorns. And memorable TV campaigns followed.

Fast-forward twenty something years and GSD&M is over 500-employees strong and has become one of the most respected creative agencies in the world. Guy Bommarito put them on the map. So when he writes about creativity…we should take notice.

Creative Bones demystifies the creative process almost anatomically. It compares ideas with vomit: “they just come out” as Dylan tried to describe how he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone.” Bommarito machine-guns 20 quick “chapters” with rapidity. It’s a one-sit read.

Agency folks sometimes lose sight of the fact that everything they do, regardless of title or department is done with the single mission of producing the best possible creative work. This book enforces that mission and makes noble a pragmatic approach to creativity. Pick it up  here on Amazon and get your creative new year off to a great start.

7 Rising East Coast Agencies…one year later

How did they fare?

Last July, I posted a column on seven creative agencies on the rise: LINK. Due to the post’s popularity (it went ridiculously viral), I thought I’d circle back a year later and report on their progress. 

Baldwin&  Raleigh, NC — Five years down the agency road and this one has really hit its stride. They launched Cree LEDUnknown lighting‘s new light bulb last year, and coincidentally the Cree stock doubled in the first month. And new work just launched a few weeks ago:  roomofenlightenment.com. They won the prestigious O’Toole Award for small agency of the year. They doubled in size every year for their first five years. So as a result, they moved into bad ass new space which is their  third space in five years. And recently, they  were featured in a Communication Arts agency profile. But, mikepalma.com scooped them one year ago.

Barton F. Graf 9000  New York, NY —  The 4A’s named BFG9000 it’s “Mid-size Agency of the Year” after this white-hot shop doubled its office space.  The tallies are coming in from Cannes as I write this but rumor has it that Gerry Graf had a tough time clearing security at the Nice airport due to all the hardware in his carry on. Great new work for new clients 350 Action, Axe, Supercell. Great work for old client Little Caesars. The hype from Fast & C0 makes one think they’ve gone from underrated to overrated in the past year. But, the work dispels that notion. It’s a short walk from the outhouse to the Penthouse. This may be the hottest creative shop in the world. But, we knew that last year…

Unknown-1 Silver & Partners  New York, NY — This agency should rename itself “Funny or Die”  based on the CarMax work (including the 2014 Super Bowl spot). But, the brilliant and somber Social campaign for the NYC Rescue Mission shows Another Side of Eric Silver. Here’s the idea: http://silverpartners.com/project/make-them-visible/. No big hype here, just an agency on a mission. I look to them breaking through a la BFG9000 this year.

BRIGHT RED\TBWA   Tallahassee, FL — If you drive southbound on I-75 from Atlanta and go back 20 years, you’ll eventually find Tallahassee. And then once you get to this agency, it’s suddenly the year 2024. They do things differently, particularly in Digital & Social. Led by their development of data analytics and digital tools to match the ability to generate award-winning content, this agency shows Omnicom the way. Data is just data without the people and intelligence to utilize the information. They have added staff to support Bright Red Insights, a measurement and analytics suite. To keep up with the growth (and the speed of need) of video content,  they also built in-house editing capabilities. In the past year, they’ve begun new relationships with Wounded Warrior Project and YOO Hotels in London and Krystal. As far as I know, no industry publication has discovered them yet. That will change.

22squared  Atlanta, GA & Tampa, FL — 22who? This agency completely reinvented itself a few years ago and the returns are astonishing. Their business has grown so much in the past year, adding PGA Superstore, OGX Shampoos and Home Depot  that HR can barely keep up with hiring new staffers. This growth, coupled with brilliant new work for Baskin-Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings and American Standard has them on the top of their game — everyone knows them for their Publix Americana-styled work, but this is a new regime and an exciting new portfolio. They recruited two creative superstars to the Tampa office. Maybe, after Wieden & Kennedy, the best independent creative agency in America. They are one big brand win away from becoming a creative household word.

The Fantastical  Boston, MA — Practically a startup one year ago, founders Mike Ancevic and Steve Mietelski had the most to prove and boy did they deliverteam-shot-bw on their promise. They now do the National TV for Sam Adams and built them a new Declare your independence brand platform. They won the global ’47 Brand campaign and are doing all of their social media as well.  They launched the Let Your You Out brand platform and campaigns for MLB and NFL. They launched the global Row NYC hotel campaign featuring Lizzy Jagger with global print and Times Square takeover billboards.They also picked up the Olympus North American business and launched the award-winning OM-D camera series this year. They won a Jay Chiat Award for their  J Jill “Uncomplicate” campaign. Recently, they were featured in Creativity Magazine…but mikepalma.com scooped them one year ago…yawn.

Neiman Group  Philadelphia, PA — Neiman Group was acquired by Boston-based Allen & Gerritsen last year. So they must have been doing something right…