by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) There is an adage that sometimes you just ‘can’t see the woods for the trees’. It’s a statement of perspective, or lost perspective, in reality — and, in this era of complexity, it’s frequently a trap that marketers and agencies find themselves falling into, often unknowingly.

Planned to the tee

With the volume of work we need to get through each year, so much effort goes into brand or business planning — particularly within the marketers’ world — that by the time the plans have been stripped apart, reconstructed, and finally approved, that there is huge emotion invested in the outcome.

Heading into the year with a firmly defined scope of deliverables, projects and specified channels means that agencies often take on the guise of a blinkered race-horse, galloping at full tilt and stretched to their performance limit by their clients. But, in our dynamic business and consumer climate, changes happen fast and may have immediate impact upon brands, causing agencies to stray off course. In the frenzy of output, the right questions cease to be asked and alignment toward true value-delivery is lost.

How may direction be reset?

It makes natural sense that agencies have (at least) quarterly reviews with their clients, not just on work produced and assessment of the operational delivering but, ultimately, to ask the question: is our plan still the right one?

I don’t believe it’s the sole responsibility of the strategy department to ask these questions, as agencies are today geared to play a far more-consultative commercial role than ever before. So the conversation is highly strategic, but upon a business and communication strategy level, rather than a creative one.


For any marketer, the prospect of embracing challenge and engaging in robust debate about the continued relevance of a painstakingly constructed plan may be intimidating. Vulnerability in an agency relationship is an enviable characteristic, and should be a cherished tenant of client-agency engagement. However, this open-minded vulnerability must be reciprocally offered by agencies, who at times may be precious about the direction of ideas, sometimes even in a self-serving way.

The right time and place to communicate

For the natural articulation of challenge and change, there need to be both orchestrated, and organic channels of client communication. Some points do not belong in a weekly status meeting, or a quarterly review. Or even in an office. For humans to connect on a more personal level, the puffery and ego associated with a corporate office visit often undoes the good intention of either party wanting to shift the conversation. Neutral spaces may unlock a sense of equality and open the door for trusting conversation — unless, of course, the only thing you want is your own way.

The way ahead is so clear from up here

Obstacles are a natural part of our journey and should cause us to pause and think awhile. Perspective is a natural outcome of this process, and a hallmark of the best of leaders, empowering them with the vision to see the road ahead, and the ability to navigate the terrain strategically. The great skill is then to tactfully engage and guide stakeholders in the right direction, fully invested in the process.

Let us, as brand leaders, therefore take the reins to incorporate perspective, not only in our planning but also in our operations, so that, together, we may focus on the things that really matter.


Tom FelsWith a decade of local and international experience in leading brand consulting, design, shopper marketing and integrated advertising roles, Tom Fels (@thomasfels) has gained a deeply relevant understanding of the dynamics of agencies. His skills are put to work daily as group managing director of Publicis Machine. He contributes the monthly “Ad Exec” column to MarkLives.

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