April 13, 2010

Ombudsman Now: The War Between In-Coming vs Out-Going ROI


Recently, we read about The New York Times Public Editor/Ombudsman embattled with finding all the conflicts in the internal war of Reporting On Iraq. Here we find another new definition for ROI. The process of performing their internal audit externally has been a painful one. And because of that the Publisher and Ombudsman deserve much credit. It makes them a stronger media company.

Just what does an Ombudsman do? An Ombudsman is like a drill sergeant looking for the weakest areas of their young recruits. Drill sergeants push every part of each young GI under their command physically, mentally, even spiritually and work to uncover as many problems as possible. And then, once they find the weak points, they push even more! Not to burden them down, but rather to strengthen them.


"Ombuds-people" are not actually drill sergeants. In publishing, one could say that their metrics-speak role would be to provide "out-going ROI." Why out-going? Because they are on the inside of the company asking the question "What have we done for them (the client/consumer) lately?"

This is quite different from the brain-numbing "in-coming" ROI most employees on Mad Avenue agencies deal with everyday. The counter-parts to Ombuds-people go by another name. They are CHCO's or "Chief Head-Count Officers." The similarity is that they also operate inside their agency. The question they ask though is different. They ask "What have you done for me (the agency/employer) lately?"


Marlon Brando played Colonel Kurtz in the film "Apocalypse Now" where we learned that earlier in his career, Kurtz had fire in his belly and knew how he could win the war. That was before he was confronted with Viet Nam's own version of the CHCO's, who even today, try to manage Madison Avenue's front lines from the rear and know very little any more about what it takes to create great advertising.

Once upon a time people worked like hell to get a job on Madison Avenue because it was such an exhilarating place to spend your day, and get paid no less! Then many had almost an identical experience to Kurtz's. They went from having the military/agency "help them hunt" to having the military/agency "hunt them."

They turned Kurtz into strange kind of "Anti-Ombuds-person." Where does that leave us?


Is the war on Madison Avenue today actually terminating our agencies with extreme prejudice? To answer that, let's take a look the real mission here; which today is defined as ROI. But what does that really mean?

1. To an Ombuds-person, ROI means "Refreshing Objective Introspection"
2. To the much demonized CHCO, ROI means "Return On Investment." ...wait, did we say investment?

Excuse us but when exactly does an agency actually make the "investment" they are expecting a return on?? Let's be frank, agencies today don't invest at all; they divest. For example, when is the last time an agency person heard, "Damn the torpedoes; we're going to recommend a more diversified creative and media mix to our clients even if we don't make a dime…"

That said, we need to act as our own Ombudsman. The Mad Ave Journal does pick on large agencies often. Maybe then now is the time to look deeper.


1. The Agency: To the untrained eye, getting great ROI is the responsibility of the agency, right? Wrong!
2. The Holding Company: It's the agency holding company's responsibility to deliver excellent ROI? Wrong again.
3. Wall Street: So then, it must be the bankers who bought the agencies who will deliver ROI. Nope, are you finished?

While all of the above may attempt to ultimately achieve a healthy balance of in-coming and out-going ROI, the only entities that achieved this level ROI were the original agency founders.

Those are the people whose only legacy today is that their name is still on the door. They got great ROI. They founded and built their agencies from scratch, by the sweat of their brow, by nurturing relationships and by delivering quality service and communication. And they deserved to achieve their own ROI. They also found what they needed at the right time, the right place and at the right price. They found the right buyer!


Founders always found the right people; just in time too, when they were tired, fed up, lost their edge, or knew their accounts were in trouble; when it was easier to go lay on the beach, or to call the 14,628 people they once said, "let's have lunch" to and finally get them all on the calendar!

They are the ones who received great ROI. They got the great return on the investment. However, the problems they left behind are the ones we are burdened with. First, they took all the money with them :--)...Second, they took their Ombuds-person mentality with them as well.


Recently, Mr. Gene DeWitt wrote about how clients and consultants are so bewildered with the state of the business in an Ad Age article titled, THE MEDIA-CREATIVE DISCONNECT that they find themselves with hair-raising question of, "Who's in Charge of Strategy?" It causes one to reflect on a similar nightmare; the part in the film when Captain Willard, the character Martin Sheen played checked out a battalion on the front line and found a frightened GI Joe half scared out of his mind, shooting aimlessly in the dark. "Hey Soldier, who's the C.O. in charge here?" Willard asked. The soldier turned around quickly and responded, "Ain't you?"

Mr. DeWitt reports that an agency head recently told him, “I don’t have anyone in my agency who can ‘talk media’ to our media agency counterpart.” Gene also shares the same manager followed up with, “And we haven’t met anyone from our media agency that seems to understand how creative strategies are developed.”

We bet that Gene's friend, the poor soldier tasked with being the "agency head" was not the agency's founder. Mr. DeWitt's recommendation is to now "re-bundle media". Yet is it that simple? Flying in the face of this approach, Noah Brier of Renegade Marketing also shared his thoughts late last year, where he predicted, "Here Comes "Unbundled Media".

Mr. Brier predicts, "The move to unbundled media will be scary for many in the advertising world, as those used to the status quo are forced to find new ways to reach consumers. But at the same time, there are huge opportunities for small, innovative agencies to break ground as media becomes consumed in this new way."

Are they in a similar intellectual fight as Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz? No, they are both right! The answer IS to rebundle media and creative teams together, so they can better handle increasingly un-bundled media plans.

Is it all that simple? No, but it steers our industry in a healthier direction where we can win the ROI war that's paralyzing Madison Avenue. This mission does exist. It's time for agencies to consider recruiting "out-going" Ombuds-people, now. By doing so, they just might avoid an "in-coming" apocalypse, soon.


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