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‘Help, help! We need more help to put out this fire!’ ‘Don’t worry, I’m here.’ ‘Great!’ You lend a hand, doing the best you can to quench the intense flames. Then, the person who pleaded for your assistance, getting word from somebody trapped inside the fire, informs you, your face frizzled, dripping with sweat all over, physically and mentally exhausted, that you’re not putting out the fire properly. ‘What?! Do it yourself, so.’


‘Can’t someone else do it?’

That, more or less, sums up the world of the marketing agency. In the analogy, the person caught inside the fire is the client. The one asking for your help, the marketing executive at the agency, usually just as frustrated as you are.

For such an integral part of a company’s day-to-day business — how it portrays itself to the public, to both its actual and potential customers — that the powers-that-be see fit to outsource marketing to third parties is a head-scratcher for me. A case of, so it seems, ‘we don’t know how to sell ourselves, so we’ll get a group of relative strangers to do it for us, people not directly part of our organisation.’

‘Never mind a revolving door, there might as well not be a door at all.’

If I’m going to be selling someone else’s product or service, I at least need to feel that I am part of it in some way. My topsy-turvy experience in a marketing agency is of largely demotivated, weary staff, particularly those doing the donkey work such as copywriting, design and graphics.

The turnover rate at the team I had been part of where, after over a year, only 10 of the original 40-plus team remain, is a representation of that. Never mind a revolving door, there might as well not be a door at all. Of course, there are a number of factors at play, some of which aren’t exclusive to marketing agencies.

For one, here in Colombia, there seems to be a general top-down belief across all sectors of the economy that ‘being at work’ trumps ‘actually doing work’. Clock in the hours, bums on seats, ensure the office or whatever has the appearance of work about it. Wonderful. One important result of this: inefficiency. Another not-insignificant one is increased energy costs for the company when you have staff just counting down the hours.

Then there’s the client. Word has it that not all are the same. Some are actually fairly organised, have a clear vision of what they want, plan accordingly and are thus relatively pleasant to work with. That is to say, not all come across as dysfunctional.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the company I’ve had to devote the lion’s share of my time to in this gig, Avianca. Just my luck that I, um, jumped on board with a crowd that appears particularly chaotic when it comes to its marketing.

‘Agencies shouldn’t yield so willingly to a client’s unreasonable demands.’

After a few rather turbulent years (yes, I meant that), things might be looking a little smoother for the airline these days as it celebrated 100 years in operation in December. The arrival of Dutch ‘saviour’ Anko van der Werff in July 2019 was seen in some quarters as the start of a brighter future.

We’ll certainly give him time to put a bit of order on things, to see that ‘northern European efficiency’ click into gear. (That quote is taken from an interview I had with Mr van der Werff. It will be our next podcast episode. He definitely talks a good talk anyway.)

Yes-man agencies
Now, not all the blame can be laid at the door of Avianca’s marketing guys for the way it operates. Management at the agency shouldn’t be so yielding to their every confused, disorderly demand. ‘Give an inch’ and all that. Yet, the client must be kept onside at all costs, that’s the agency mantra. If not, there’s always another waiting in the wings. They’re all undercutting each other in a race to the bottom.

That’s not to say a race to the bottom in terms of quality from the agencies, it’s more one where wages are paltry and work demands excessive. For those at the coalface, this usually translates into burnout and stress with relatively little in return.

When it’s your own baby so to put it, then you tend to be more inclined to go that extra mile. Doing somebody else’s dirty work, right in the thick of it, removed from the very receiver of your done-in-good-faith deeds, doesn’t fill one with much enthusiasm.

Put out your own fire, guys.
Listen to The Colombia Cast podcast here.
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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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