Idealog #13 Column

Here's my column in the latest editon of Idealog Magazine:

How do advertising agencies differentiate themselves from their competition? “Easy!” I hear the cry go up “We’re more creative than them.”

If you were to rank New Zealand ad agencies on the basis of their creative output how would you do it? By the number of awards that they won in the previous year? Awards don’t all have the same currency. You might argue that prestigious awards like British Design & Art Direction or Cannes Lions have more gravity than, say, the kiwi Axis awards. The local award might be a more useful measure of ability because it is judged by peers from local industry. On the other hand D&AD or Cannes is more credible because it is not judged by peers in the local industry.

What happens if an ad agency has cabinets full of awards for advertising you think is bollocks? …scam ads or ‘ambient’ messages that were noticed by exactly seven people (two of whom were the art director’s dear old schizophrenic mother).

What happens when the creative director with more award gold Croesus is lured to a rival creative shop? How can differentiation of a brand be dependent on individuals who are just about as loyal as Henry Tudor to his wives?

So, if you own or run an agency, how can you differentiate yourself from rivals (some of whom won’t even be ad agencies )?

Own something. Don’t just do something. Everybody can do the things required to make great advertising, one way or another.

Own a category. If you specialise in a particular area clients will be attracted to your depth of knowledge. If there are few prospective clients in the category aim to have a relationship with the brightest and the best. Add more verticals over time to progressively increase share of market. Develop a reputation for being the only one who understands consumer motivations in a category. Develop international markets for your insights (New Zealand used to be considered a perfect microcosm).

Own your IP. There is plenty of scope for developing proprietary products in marketing communications. Commoditisation of advertising services has dessicated margins. Competition has driven prices down. One of my motivations for creating Family Health Diary was my love/hate relationship with pitching for business. I felt that, if we owned the product and it was distinctive, clients would have to come to us. It has proven to be a highly profitable strategy. No more fickle new business swimsuit parades and ‘conflict of interest’ from multiple clients in the category isn’t an issue. Why hasn’t the ad industry developed any technology of note? Make it a priority.

Have your own voice. Turn people away who don’t really want what you have. The choice to work with an agency is entirely subjective. Don’t set numeric new business development goals. If your rainmakers bring the wrong clients into your business they will meet their billings targets but unleash hostile cultural forces that can poison your relationship with staff and stakeholders. You wouldn’t marry someone thinking you could change them to suit you…would you? It seems obvious, but it is often ignored by agencies. Look after your own brand.

Don’t think us and them. Embed yourself in your client’s business. I’m not talking about the traditional factory tour for the account team when you win the account. Get an intimate knowledge of your client’s business and for crying out loud, stop being pansy about ‘creativity’. The days of the magic black box are over. You know what I mean: client briefs you…you go away and come back with… ‘Tah-Dah’… the ‘clear your mantelpiece…make room for the gongs’ solution. If you’re not engaging with your clients every day on an intimate level don’t be surprised when they run off with someone who does. Think about how you collaborate with your clients to co-create. Teach them some of your tricks. Open the kimono. Charge for it.

Differentiation by conformity is a one-way ticket to a hiding. The real difference you make, at the end of the day, is to be capable of making a profitable difference to your client with solutions they can’t buy at any price elsewhere.


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