BusinessMarketing and Public Relations

Why Local Ad Agencies Should Abolish Lead Time

By October 3, 2019 No Comments

This article was originally published with The Manila Times on October 3, 2019.

Lead times are inventions of the structure of a company. During the bad, old days of advertising, Accounts, Copy and Art were distinct and discrete functions and departments.

It was a production line. Housed in separate rooms and managed by separate managers, people did not work together. In many agencies, they were like separate kingdoms, each protecting itself against the others. It was a system problem, and it made for bloody conflicts.

The account manager hands a requirement to a copywriter, to create, say, a print ad, and to do so in whatever was stipulated in the table of lead times. The writer will, in turn, knock on the door of Art, and ask them to create a “compre”, meaning a rough sketch of the advertisement. The lead time table is usually plastered on the wall of the art department; people could, when negotiating or arguing about deadlines, point to the god on the wall. After accomplishment, the assigned artist asks the executive art director for approval or inputs, after which the work is submitted to Accounts, who will reject, ask for reshaping, revising, rewording, or a refocusing. He will then ask his superiors for approval, who will ask for reshaping, revising, rewording, or may reject the work entirely.

The system was a client-supplier relationship, an inefficient and slow one. Not slow as in humdrum, but as in wearisome: full of drama and obstacles. There was, and is, Traffic, an entire department tasked to monitor the efficiency of the manufacturing line, and to mediate in conflicts.

Lead times are helpful when there are different departments trying to work together. The job order form was necessary to initiate work. “No J.O., No Work” is a sign you’ll find posted on the walls of staff. When I was head of a large creative department, I created one of the most comprehensive job requisition forms in the industry. You tend to defend your department fanatically from unnecessary work and from jobs with inadequate information.

To make work faster, you knock down the walls

The global industry created the creative team, a tandem composed of the copywriter and the art director. No longer did the writer write a headline and give it to somebody in another room for a layout. They worked together, breathed the same air, subbed for each other, blurred the divisions: the art director could and would write; the copywriter could and would come up with the big picture.

But that revision of the production line was a palliative.

The need for speed

Fast must be part of culture because speed fixes problems: Speed of the agency can help extricate clients from problems. There is also time to address miscommunication.

World-class creative work loses impact when delivered in slow motion. But speed in an agency can only exist when people mature from being craftsmen to people who can think about the future and viability of the company.

When I grew out of Creative and into management, out of grumbling about the deadlines and defending creatives, I saw the need for speed.

Work is slow when there is excessive emphasis on craft. Craft should succumb to strategy. Clarity and effectiveness should prevail over obscurantism and style. “Ang lakas” instead of “ang ganda.”

In one agency, I knocked down the wall between Copy and Art; in another, I knocked down the one between Accounts and Creative, creating Business Teams, mini-agencies, or silos. I tried pushing the envelope further: I assigned finance and media people to the teams, but that experiment was overtaken by the unbundling of media services.

What is ‘fast’?

The deadline is “when client needs it”. One client briefed us in the afternoon; we were back in his office with TV storyboards and print ads the next morning.

“Fast” is same day delivery. A crisis hit our biggest client, a nutritional brand: their products were ordered recalled from the shelves, and they asked us to mitigate the public relations impact on the brand. The agency was called in late in the afternoon, we were back in client offices in just hours, with six comprehensives. He was impressed, thankful, and had difficulty choosing between studies.

“Fast” must be at all levels of production: Mister Donut, the largest donut brand in the country, needed merchandising materials ahead of the television campaign for dissemination to the various stores. They gave the go-ahead signal for finalization; we had a preproduction meeting in the afternoon; and we shot in the evening. We submitted the final art to client the next day.

Swift wanted to air an ad for their sports advocacy in seven days, and it was a deadline we couldn’t move — the Olympics. The results: we aired an ad I am particularly proud of.

“Fast” is days — not weeks: A Robitussin campaign developed in two days. We presented two strong alternative campaigns to client. The results: Client was ecstatic. It was a landmark year in sales for the brand; if I am not mistaken, it became category leader.

What can you do in five days? We were asked to do a speculative for HCG, a brand of bathroom fixtures. We had five major campaigns, with research, total IMC plans, with detailed budgets. And five produced rough television commercials.

Results? We were awarded the account immediately after the presentation. The marketing director said, “you understood in a week what it took me seven months.”

A more recent success was the “JV is the Good One”. It was ready for airing a week after it was presented.

Of course these were instances where speed was required by the urgency of the requirements, many by circumstances beyond the control of client and agency. These miracles should not be considered as guidelines.

Key to speed: Working together

We instituted a faster and more natural way to ideate: “brainpicking” (fleshed out in a previous article). We killed the lonely writer, because we believe more heads are better than one burning the midnight oil alone.

IDEO is the world’s most influential design firm. They create 90 new products a year. Including the most innovative products — laptop computers, virtual reality headgear, the ATM. But the firm’s defining quality is the process of creativity itself.

“But Ideo staffers don’t just sit around waiting for good ideas to pop into their heads. The company has institutionalized a process whereby ideas are coaxed to the surface… At Ideo, idea-generation exercises are ‘practically a religion’,” Tom Kelley says in his book ‘The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from Ideo, America’s Leading Design Firm’.

“The social ecology at many American companies says that when you’re stuck, you’re supposed to go back to your desk and think harder, because you were hired for your skills,” Kelley added. “At Ideo, the culture is exactly the opposite. You have a social obligation to get help.”

“Collective idea generation is so important at Ideo that a staffer caught trying to solve a problem alone at his desk” may be reprimanded for wasting his time and the client’s money. (Linda Tiscler, “Seven Secrets to Good Brainstorming, Fast Company)

Why be fast?

Because local ad agencies do not have mother companies to lean on. The only assets of an ad agency are accounts and people – both susceptible to piracy. Globally aligned agencies have clients falling onto their laps. Speed is a competitive edge difficult for multinational ad agencies to match. The independent should be faster, wear the stance of the hungry.

To work faster, you just have to work together.

The author is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists and causes, and co-founder of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through

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