Confessions of an agency executive: Agencies don’t build their own brands

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

It’s tough to be a media agency these days. In this edition of Confessions, a communications executive who has spent time at multiple agencies discusses why agencies are so bad at marketing themselves, from marketers questioning the value they bring to a creeping sense of irrelevance. Edited highlights appear below.

What’s your biggest challenge at agencies?
The lack of belief or support in the corporate marketing function at agencies. Here you have agencies who talk about the impact of marketing on the top and bottom line. But very few agencies practice what they preach when it comes to that. For the size of what the companies are, there’s no budget for that.

There’s a credibility crisis in digital advertising right now.
Yes, and that’s why I think spending money on corporate marketing is important. I think the increased competition from everything from large agencies to consultancies to everyone and their mother, there is so much competition that necessitates the need for a differentiated brand. The day-to-day contact of showing a CMO something — you don’t want it where the person doesn’t know the agency and says they’ve never heard of them. You have to instill some type of confidence in knowing what you’re doing and that you’re up to date on things.

You mentioned the budget. Where does it go instead?
The spend goes to things like how do we “arrive” at these tentpole events? Cannes, CES. We overindex on airfare and hotels. I know CEOs who pride themselves on being the mayor of Cannes. Look, I think most agencies feel they need to be at these events to check the box. Make sure that within the wider market you’re perceived as being alive and have the lights on. But standing out is hard.

Why do agencies find it hard to market themselves?
The nature of the product. The product itself is not great. You think about the crème de la crème of brands that have true differentiated narratives. That’s what makes their marketing good. In the agency world where everyone is figuring it out, and nobody knows what they’re doing, you get to the point where you’re basically a boilerplate of name and website. It is bad because advertisers right now are facing the question of how they need to pay premium to get premium, whether it’s brand safety or whatever it is. A differentiated agency brand can answer that question.

So much of being an agency is selling an image.
There’s so much an element of a hipster, cool thing. Your website looks good, and your office space looks good. One agency I worked at, in their main office, has walls that are these touch-screen walls where you’ve gone and you sit there, and you’re like, “That’s so cool.” And then, you sit back down and say, “Why the fuck do they have that? Am I just some asshole touching this dumb wall?” But it’s the image. It’s why I think people put offices in Tribeca and Dumbo. If you have a Brooklyn location, you have hipster credibility.

Like a chemistry check.
It’s essentially a chance for a brand to come in and do a meet and greet with a wider team. It’s not totally superficial, but it’s like the client is saying, “You had these ideas; let’s hear you articulate them in person.” You can’t outright present a lie, but you have to do some creative fudging, and find the right people up and down the food chain that can perform well and build a relationship with a human.

It’s for show. It’s like talking about failure in the abstract, but you can’t actually admit to it.
Yes. A lot of the times people in the agency world, if we can talk about not doing our work or being bad, it will impact our job. It’s a skittish culture. I haven’t worked in any environments where it’s truly that entrepreneurial idea of failure should be embraced. It’s just a show. There’s overall a paralysis by consensus where change happens slowly. Agencies run the risk of being irrelevant, and a lot of it is because they don’t have strong brands.

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