Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why Can't Agencies Market Themselves?

I attended an interesting AAAA seminar this week entitled "What Separates the Best from the Rest: What the best agencies do differently." The speaker, Tim Williams of Ignition Consulting Group, was informative, interesting, and entertaining.

Among the many things that the best agencies do is to differentiate themselves from the competition. While the best agencies succeed at creating a compelling point of difference, it's shocking to see how many agencies fail at this.

Considering agencies are in the business of differentiating their clients' brands every day, why do so many have such a difficult time doing the same for themselves? A lack of objectivity about their own "product"? Too busy attending to client business to get their own marketing just right? Or, are there so many agencies that it's tough (although never impossible) to find a point of difference? According to the US Department of Labor, there were about 48,000 advertising and public relations services establishments in the United States in 2006; how many industries can you think of that feature 48,000 competitors?

The most humorous and eye-opening portion of the seminar was the list of words that virtually every agency uses to "differentiate" themselves from the crowd. Every agency seems to promote it is "full-service," "creative," "integrated," "experienced," "strategic," "award-winning," and "media agnostic," as if this creates a distinction from other agencies.

Tim showed the following video, which made attendees laugh and wince. It's hard not to see at least a little (and perhaps a lot) of one's own agency in this video.

So, here's an exercise for you to try if you're with an agency: Go to your Web site and copy and paste the language from your home or "About Us" page that describes your organization. Then go to four or five competitors' sites and do the same. Finally, remove the agency names and show the collected descriptions to your peers to see if they can identify which is your agency's. This might be a very humbling experience.

Of course, the challenge of communicating differentiating attributes doesn't stop with positioning statements and Web sites. As Tim discusses, how many agency presentations start with information such as number of employees, location of offices, list of services, and a slide of client logos? These are the things that clients and prospects find least useful, yet 9 out of 10 agency capability presentations seem to start this way.

The real question this begs is whether a client should hire an agency unable to craft a compelling and differentiated brand for themselves. I think the widely-known and -used analogy of the "Cobbler's Children" started as a joke, but somehow along the line it became the de facto standard for agencies and other B2B industries. (I once knew a guy who worked at a hosting company that had an unbelievably unreliable internal network--the system administrators were too busy attending to client network needs to pay attention to the organization's own network.)

The seminar was a great reminder that agencies cannot cut so many costs and get so busy on client work that they fail to walk the talk with their own marketing. If you're seeking some information or inspiration to set your agency apart from the pack, you may wish to contact Tim at Ignition. Feel free to contact me through the "Contact Us" form at right, and I'd be happy to share his email address.

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