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June 1, 2009
In the Eyes of the Beholder
 
The all-important agency mission statement. Lovely, but we are who others think we are.

One thing that has always driven me crazy about advertising is the grandiosity we agencies have when it comes to talking about ourselves. As soon as I became part of my agency’s creative leadership (here and elsewhere) I became part of the “Who are we?” discussion. This is the meeting where VIPs from all over the network argue passionately about the agency’s mission statement. The discussions can get pretty heated.
 
To pinpoint the source of this frustration, one need only look at an agency’s credentials. Supposedly, this is the agency’s brand essence or what it stands for. Are we about ideas, client service, publicity or all of the above? In every creds piece (including ours), are some permutations of “building brands over time while selling products right away.”
 
Blah, blah, blah.
 
I need to call bullshit. With the possible exception of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, there are no agency brands. Not really. The venerable Carl Ally once said, “Clients make great agencies, not vice-versa.” More than a treatise about greatness, his statement suggests that an advertising agency is defined by its brands. For example Weiden & Kennedy is the Nike agency. Its greatness is their greatness.
 
Let’s look at BBDO. This venerable agency used to be about big personalities. It was Phil Dusenberry, Joe Pytka, Michael Jackson and Pepsi Cola. What is the agency now? David Lubars and HBO? Probably. And that’s fine. Clients come to agencies for one of three reasons: it’s portfolio, strategic-creative leadership, and/or past relationships. Doubtful a client ever chose a mission statement.
 
Seems obvious. But then why is this stuff so hotly debated? I’ll get to that. For me the “it” of an agency is the current and prevailing perception (of us) by those that give a damn, which, if we are honest, are precious few. The takeaway here is that an agency doesn’t really need a brand identity. We are people, places and things orbiting around a collection of clients. Each of these systems has gravity. If we are lucky and good, this gravity is strong and, therefore, highly attractive.
 
End of story. When I observe creative people fighting with business people for the “soul of their agency” I roll my eyes. At best, the argument is an interesting philosophical one. At worst, it becomes a divisive and political nightmare.
 
As suggested, the lone exception might be CP&B. Their “Fame” strategy is unique and has a self-serving component the rest of us cannot get away with. They regularly turn down business because it is not commensurate with their stated mission. Only agency I know to do so. Good for them.
 
Solving for our own brand seems immaterial. Yet, we are hell bent on doing so. When we put that energy into our clients the reflected glory trumps all our own rhetoric.

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Chairman of Euro RSCG Worldwide Chicago, Steffan Postaer is responsible for its overall creative leadership and quality of the creative product. He’s received several prestigious awards, including a Kelly Award, Best of Show, Gold and Silver awards at the One Show, the Addys and a Cannes Gold Lion. Steffan has a novel about god and advertising and posts regularly on his blog, Gods of Advertising. Follow him on Twitter.

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