When I was in the employ of an advertising agency years ago, the firm agreed to sponsor an event hosted by a prominent marketing publication. As part of the sponsorship, we were granted ad space in the publication for our own use. Surprisingly, that single print ad became the catalyst for a firm-wide fight of staggering proportions. It set off an argument and established rifts between people that somehow became highly personal and enduring. All from the opportunity for an advertising agency to make a public claim about itself.
I noticed after the fight that very few advertising agencies used the medium they worked and traded in to promote themselves. Public relations firms could claim they didn’t advertise for the obvious reason that it would be an admission that advertising was more effective than word of mouth, but advertising agencies had no such excuse. Agencies shunning the medium could easily be seen by clients as a believing that advertising was too ineffective or inefficient to spend real money on. (Meaning their own.)
Surely you too have noticed the dearth of ads promoting ad agencies? Have you contemplated why?
The Heroin Defence
At some point during my agency career I gave up television. It would occasionally become a point of friction when a client would want to talk about the placement of her spot in the previous night’s programming. I would be forced to admit I didn’t see it and that I didn’t watch television at all. The client would be aghast. “How can you do your job?” intoned one incredulous CMO. Fortunately I had the perfect retort that shut the conversation down quickly. “Would you buy your heroin from a user?”
The heroin defence doesn’t work for the advertising agency that doesn’t advertise, however. In theory at least, ad agencies should be spending a significant portion of their marketing budget (that’s an actual budget for your own marketing, in case you’re wondering) on their own advertising, but paid ads by agencies are so scarce they trigger surprise, and often news within the advertising profession, when they happen. Why is this so?
The answer was illuminated by the squabble I found myself in all those years ago over our free ad: we couldn’t agree on what to say about ourselves.
Advertising agencies don’t advertise because they don’t know what to say in those ads. The vast majority can’t make a claim that most other agencies can’t match.
The creative profession of advertising, ironically, may be the ultimate me-too business in which any pursuit of differentiation is usually done through one of two claims: ‘we’re more creative’ or ‘we’re more strategic’. In my own experience all those years ago, camps broke out along the above lines plus a third group pushing the ‘we’re more passionate’ angle. I was stuck in the middle, owning the ‘we sound exactly like everybody else’ position. It didn’t help that the principal had left the decision to a large management team, abdicating one of his most important responsibilities as a business owner. In hindsight however it’s easy to see why he ducked the exercise. He knew this wouldn’t be easy or pretty.
Most firms have no problem making these claims of creativity or strategic acumen privately in the protective bubble of a boardroom (where the claims are often expressed through the work itself, which is pitched for free, rather than articulated in conversation) but going public in an ad that is bound to be seen by the firm’s competitors is another matter. It paralyzed us because it forced us to admit that we would leverage any point of differentiation we could in a private moment but we had nothing we could ladder up to a public claim. We were just like everybody else, and like everybody else, we were trying to differentiate ourselves by simply being better. Noble perhaps, but as marketers we should have known better than to try to own a category of thousands. We would have set any of our clients straight on such a flawed strategy.
Take This Test
If you’re interested in testing this hypothesis in your own firm, and are open to risking a civil war, consider the exercise of telling your team that you have purchased a sizeable ad in a broad reaching publication such as the local or national daily or a magazine like The Economist, and ask them to come up with the ad for the firm.
If you feel strongly that your people would come up with something meaningful to say, or if you disagree with my hypothesis that advertising agencies don’t advertise because they don’t have anything to say about themselves that their many competitors couldn’t also say, I challenge you to go one step further and actually purchase the space. That’s right, do this exercise for real – buy the media and brief your team to come up with an ad that will shout from the rooftops who you are, how you are different and why clients should hire you.
My experience is most agency principals will say their firm is well positioned, but few are. Is yours? Prove it. Buy the ad.
I’ll sit back and wait for the fireworks to begin.