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CMOs: How to Get the Best from Your Agency (with FIG’s Judith Carr-Rodriguez)

CMOs: How to Get the Best from Your Agency (with FIG’s Judith Carr-Rodriguez)

FIG’s Judith Carr-Rodriguez

By Steve Boehler with special guest Judith Carr-Rodriguez

It seems like every day there is an even greater emphasis on a company’s return on marketing and advertising investment than the day before. CMOs are under intense pressure to deliver better results and they expect even greater productivity from their agencies for less money.

In this intensely competitive and nerve-wracking world, marketers need to get the maximum return on every dollar invested. How can marketers get the best results from their agencies?

To help answer that question, we caught up recently with Judith Carr-Rodriguez. Judith is CEO of an A List Agency, one of the most awarded and highly regarded independent agencies in the world: FIG. Let’s dive in.

Judith, you’ve worked with a wide range of clients – some great, some less than great. What’s the difference? What makes a client a great client?

Judith: The ad industry narrative used to be that there were brands that were great brands and therefore great clients, and less desirable brands so less desirable clients. That’s a myth – not true then and certainly not now. We’ve worked with clients of all shapes and sizes and there is one resounding truth when it comes to being a great client: the willingness to trust. When a client/agency relationship is at its best, the agency is your first call when you need a problem solved. I find it really interesting that FIG’s proportion of AOR relationships (vs. project engagements) increased to the vast majority in the last two years. When I’ve spoken to our clients about that, it’s because it has been such a stressful and tumultuous time with various challenges for them – from social change, economic upheaval and the pandemic – that they need to rely more than ever on our problem-solving skills. One client called it “creative agility”, which I really like!

The FIG leadership team that drives “creative agility”

What specifically defines a great client?

Judith: Shared values from the onset. At FIG we are Storytellers for the Information Age and we exist to build today’s most salient brands. We have a very clear north star. If you are not a believer in storytelling or the power of saliency to drive growth, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. It’s important that clients take time to really understand the values of an agency and whether or not they align with them. I’d also add a willingness to listen – for both clients and agencies – is really important. From an agency perspective, clients are engaging a team of professionals with quite a bit of experience who do this day in day out, across brands and categories. There should be a weight given to agency recommendations.

Shared values help chart the drive for Waze

And what client behaviors get in the way of success?

Judith: It’s never been a harder time to be a CMO, and we completely respect and empathize with that. The short termism though is really really hard, both for agencies and also for the health of their business. An over reliance on performance techniques and tactics has been proven to inhibit your ability to grow your business in the medium and long term. Marketing is an investment for a strong near term and long-term future. As an industry, we must embrace the great marketing science that people like Byron Sharp, Peter Field, WARC and the IPA are doing. We need to prioritize reaching as many people as possible, as regularly as possible with creative that is unforgettable. That’s key to create the memory structures that you can then activate with all the great performance campaigns that are nowadays frequently managed in house.

Putting “memory structures” to work: the FIG logo

What advice do you have for marketers that want to eventually become great CMOs?

Judith: I’m going to borrow Mark’s (Figliulo, founder of FIG) words here: the riskiest thing you can do is to follow the status quo. Every single category has tropes and conventions, and it’s super appealing for marketers to follow those. But in a fragmented media landscape, where budgets are increasingly under pressure, where consumer attention is fleeting – people just aren’t thinking about brands, unless they are loyal in which case you don’t really need to communicate to them – basically in this Information Age in which we are living, if you don’t stand out with your communications, you are just wasting your money. The riskiest thing you can do is play it safe because you’ll end up just blending in.

Not following the status quo for KetelOne

If you were to write a manifesto for being a great client, what would it cover?

Judith: Shared values. Willingness to trust. Partnership. Know that standing out is your strategic advantage when it comes to communications – so know how to take a risk.

You’ve worked with many fine marketing leaders. What specific marketers and stories of working with them come to mind that scream “great client”?

Judith: I’m going to go back to right at the beginning of FIG, with Sprint as our founding client 9 years ago now. One, they were great people. Jeff Hallock was the CMO and Tracy Palmer the head of advertising. Two, they weren’t afraid to take a risk on both FIG – a brand new agency with no clients, no track record, and on the work – and the Frobinsons campaign we created was totally breakthrough for telecoms. But their risks paid off – the campaign got Sprint back to growth after quarter upon quarter of successive decline.

There was a deep level of trust on both sides that paid off in spades. And wow did we have fun in the process! We became not really client and agency but a group of people just making great work together every day.

We often hear that CMOs struggle to get traction with the rest of the C-suite. And CMOs of course have the shortest average tenure of any C-suite role. Based on your experience, what advice do you have for CMOs?

Judith: I think the role of marketing within organizations has never been more important. The world we live in is ever changing and brand experience is everything to consumers. The only discipline within organizations that can define and impact the total brand experience is the marketing team. Define your north star for the organization, ensure the CEO is in lock step, let the brand behavior flow from you.

What advice do you have for a CMO on getting a new agency off to a great start?

Judith: A onboarding and immersion session is everything – where you not only take a deeper dive on the business, but you take a deeper dive on one another as people. Mercer Island Group does the best job at ensuring this happens.

And what advice do you have for agencies on how to get off to a great start with a new client?

Judith: The onboarding process begins before the final pitch. In every pitch we participate in, we act internally as if we have already won the business coming out of the tissue session. This allows us to reduce the onboarding process and hit the ground running. In the most recent pitch we won, we were able to have work on air 6 weeks after the award date.

Judith & FIG leadership at AdAge’s Leading Women

Knowing what you know today, what advice would you have for 30-year old Judith?

Judith: Lighten up. It’s only advertising!

FIG’s Judith Carr-Rodriguez and Mark Figliulo

Judith is a digital native, passionate about helping brands transform for today’s data-driven, experiential and technology-enabled world. Previously President of LBi, she led the agency’s growth from boutique agency into the world’s largest independent digital agency. As CEO of FIG, Judith has commercial and operational responsibility for the agency and all its disciplines. She spends the majority of her time with clients and ensuring FIG scales in line with the agency’s ambition. Judith was this year named to AdAge’s Leading Women—a list of the most influential people in marketing today.

Steve Boehler, founder, and partner at Mercer Island Group has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Zillow Group, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Ulta Beauty, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running, and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.