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February 23, 2012
In Advertising, There’s No Substitute for Experiencing
 
Involve people in the workings of business and they’ll understand.
 
I recently met some people who run a local advertising agency. But I didn’t meet them at their office — they were at a Saturday morning farmer’s market in my neighborhood. Turns out, they had begun a side business selling organic tomato sauce. Since their agency specialized in sustainable brands, they were getting first-hand knowledge in building one of their own.
 
So how important is it to experience what our clients, and their businesses, go through?
 
Lots of advertising people launch businesses on their own, or pursue side hobbies to make money. I also know of an agency owner in Ohio who’s currently running for Congress, which exposes him to a world of issues beyond his shop. But increasingly, advertising agencies and marketing firms are branching out on company time — making products, launching their own brands, and creating more than ads.
 
Does it distract from what we ought to be doing — making great advertising? Possibly. On one hand, there’s the school of thought that says, “Just concentrate on the ad that’s on your desk.” But these days, I’m not sure that’s enough.
 
Creating a side business is a good way of breaking out of a daily rut. But it also gives advertising professionals, especially creative people, a more intimate look at what our clients go through. Product development, legal issues and regulations, sales and pricing strategies, revenue, and a whole host of other aspects of running a business become much more tangible.
 
Even if you, or your agency, are not inclined to make other products, there’s simply no replacement for experiencing firsthand how a client’s business is run, or at least witnessing the process. I once worked on a client that ran a large-scale manufacturing business that built products other companies would put their names on. But as the writer charged with developing brand messages, I was prevented from meeting the clients or visiting their factories. I took someone’s secondhand notes and created the messaging for the brand. I’m pretty good at writing for products and services I don’t use, but it’s far from ideal when I’m not exposed to their world.
 
If we’re going to pursue more experiential marketing ideas, it helps to be experienced. And no, I don’t mean experience in the sense of having 20 years of creating ads. I’m talking about the experience gained from seeing how the proverbial sausage gets made, or making some ourselves.
 
And frankly, that’s what separates well-rounded ad people from average ones — the ability to carry on a conversation with a client about the workings of their business, not just the concepts you’re presenting.
 
If you work in management of an ad agency, then you’re probably getting requests from your clients to present them more ideas that aren’t traditionally considered advertising. Or, you wish your clients would request those kinds of ideas from you. But it’s not likely to happen if you insist on compartmentalizing your staff and keeping them chained to their desks. It might keep them billable in the short-term, but it won’t make them, or you, valuable in the long-term.
 
If you’re a client-side marketer, you need to insist that your ad agency understands your business from the inside out — particularly the people actually making the ads. That kind of immersion, coupled with the objective look advertising people like to approach assignments with, can truly help a marketer. If your agency’s employees aren’t curious about your business, find another agency. And if you’re not willing to feed their curiosity, you’ll get the kind of shallow thinking you deserve.
 
These days, if ad agencies and marketing firms are striving to be treated as “partners” rather than vendors, then there has to be some action to prove it. Start by involving the people who make the work. Prove that you understand not only your client’s business, but also what it takes to be in business, and stay in business.
 
Take it from my new tomato sauce-making friends. Even 10 or 20 years in advertising is no substitute for a little experience. 


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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. 


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