Agencies need to start being as honest about what they don't do well as they are about what they do well. Sure, it's much harder than it used to be in the ad business. Back in 'the good old days' when we had just a handful of TV channels (I sadly can remember the birth of Channel 4) and a well defined selection of well read press titles to chose from, our job was much simpler. You just needed to be bloody good at making ads and your work defined you. Agencies used to say no all the time. 'No' if they didn't like the brief. 'No' if they felt the client was making a mistake and 'no' if they were being asked to run work they didn't believe in. Perhaps most interestingly though, 'no' if it wasn't their core area of expertise. And that earned us respect as agencies.
Sitting on the membership committee at the IPA, I have the pleasure of visiting a number of up and coming agencies keen to join the industry club and I hear the same message over and over in different words - 'we are agile and cross platform'; 'we are truly integrated'; 'we are media neutral' (or in other words, 'we do anything and everything').
I am not unfamiliar with this approach myself as we founded our own agency thirteen years ago on the principal of being a 'one stop shop' - Minimart was born to connect a then disparate offline and online agency offering with in house production. Seemed clever at the time.
But I found myself sitting in another new agency creds presentation last week and whilst role playing a potential client hearing the sales chat for the first time, I felt compelled to ask the agency management 'this all sounds great and I get that you can create everything from TV ads to social content but what is it you don't do so well?' I wanted to know what they would say no to. There was a confused and uncomfortable silence in the room. It was clear that 'no' was not a word that was used that often.
Of course, as a growing business in a tough competitive market it makes complete sense to grab everything you can and say 'yes', but it is not just the hungry little guys grabbing everything they can. The big international agency groups facing ongoing fee pressure from existing clients now talk of being able to handle all of the clients' needs. And we are seeing PR, media agencies and even some media owners offering creative solutions and creative agencies are responding by offering media planning strategy from social and search upwards. This is becoming a jungle for our clients and we are causing the issue.
When pitching to an American potential client a few weeks ago, we were asked at the start of the meeting 'so tell me about your agency'. I could have started with the same old elevator pitch about how good we are at everything but I tried a different tack - I started by telling him how terrible we are at some things. "We are dreadful at PR, and we don't get media at all" for example. You could see the relief on his face that I hadn't gone into a 'we do everything brilliantly' verbatim which he clearly hears all the time, especially in the US. And when I finally got to the bit which we are truly good at - creative strategy and creative execution - I even convinced myself.
This makes sense - if you were in a market looking for apples and most stalls had a mixture of all sorts of fruit and veg but one stall had just apples, wouldn't you buy from the apple guy? I would - I would assume his apples are better and he might know more about apples. And wouldn't it be easier if there was a banana stall, an apple stall and an orange stall rather than everyone selling all fruit (and you having to look and compare them all)?
If we are more defined on what we offer, we are also more likely to be respected for what we do. Perhaps clients might like us to disagree more and, heaven forbid, our work might get better.
When Elton John suggested in 1976 that 'sorry seems to be the hardest word' it seems that in agency life 40 years later that 'no seems to be the hardest word'. And it is killing our business. Is it something we can change? I believe we can, yes (damn it, I just said yes again)!
Published by: Tim Clyde in Blog