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June 4, 2015
Agency Positioning is Quite Contorted These Days
What happens when agencies have trouble branding themselves

I once worked for an agency whose CEO told prospective clients, “We’ll do whatever you want.” Which meant he was all too willing to bend to a client’s every whim. He made a lot of money for himself, but the agency didn’t produce a wealth of great work. Nor did the agency have a clear position about itself, its outlook on the business, or the kind of clients it wanted.

It’s one of the ultimate ironies of the business. Advertising agencies counsel (or secretly yearn for) clients to be more focused, target a specific audience, or adopt a singular voice in their work. Yet it’s quite rare for agencies to position themselves and stick with it, whether it’s a specialization in a client vertical category, a style of work, or expertise in a particular medium or two.

So why can't agencies brand themselves well? As more marketing lines blur, are all agencies destined to simply sound the same? How can marketers judge and differentiate potential agency suitors on something other than price or personalities?

As a freelancer, I have the unique ability to assess an agency’s strengths and weaknesses rather quickly. I suppose it’s always easier to judge others’ abilities and work than our own. A few years ago, I worked with a couple of agencies to help them clarify their brand positions, at least on paper. One agency had a particular and definitive client category niche, the other not so much. You can guess which agency had a clearer-sounding new business prospect pitch.

In an industry like advertising where the output is different every time, finding a consistent position is especially tricky. Just like it would be a risk — a risk of not eating or paying the bills — to make myself a specialist in one type of copywriting. While agencies do turn down prospective clients, more often than not they’re willing to give almost any client with a decent budget a shot. It doesn’t matter if the client is known for approving ho-hum creative work, or if they have a reputation for being difficult or demanding. Wave some potential work at many agencies and they’ll come running. Agencies always hope they’ll bring the client around to their way of thinking.

And in the age of oh-so-much content, most ad agencies (or studios, or creative collaborative boutiques, or whatever sexier name they want to call themselves) are willing to say, “Sure, we can do that.” No matter what “that” happens to be. So any project looks attractive. And firms that are rooted in PR, websites, media buying, or film production are tackling brand-building assignments, or anything else a client is willing to offer up. 

It doesn’t take very much for a marketer to be confused, with so many firms as would-be suitors lining up to solve their problems. Marketing and advertising have always had an element of guesswork and BS, and today’s media world has only exacerbated that.

Marketers don’t help themselves much, either. I wish more clients would simply choose their agency partners by looking at which shop already does the type of work they wish to have for their own brand. Wanna take chances? Hire an agency known for provocative work. Wanna do marketing with humor? Hire the agency known for comedy. Wanna play it safe? Well, there are loads of choices there. But too often, clients look at numbers and personalities rather than an agency’s product or outcomes.

Make no mistake, ad agencies are businesses and need to be profitable. Too much overhead (in the form of people, machinery, or real estate) isn’t good to have, particularly if management is too discerning about what kinds of client business to take on.

Perhaps there’s a happy medium to be had. All agencies have client “wish lists” or dream assignments they’d like to get. Perhaps it’s worth the effort to create an equal list of “the clients we don’t want.” Similarly, the never-ending cycle of agency reviews might possibly get slowed down if the initial chemistry check included a good, solid review of past creative work and the people responsible for making it.

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen. With procurement departments looking to pare down marketing costs, and agency managers looking for revenue under every client couch cushion, we’re not going to see too many creative shops risk differentiating themselves too much and being placed out of the running for a lot of new business.

It’s a shame, because you can’t stay solidly positioned if you’re contorting yourself all the time.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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