Find your voice and get your story straight
Follow the Shoe™. A cynical view of agency marketing.

Follow the Shoe™. A cynical view of agency marketing.


Coffee with an ex-client turned into a conversation about “happening” agencies around the world.

And from there to a revealing, client-eye view of agency marketing, agency models, agency philosophies and the ™ packaging of agency processes.

Said client must have had thousands of cold calls, hundreds of chemistry meetings and dozens of pitches from agencies large and small, in all disciplines, from all around the world.

He likened agencies to religions.

All claiming to represent the one true God of marcoms expertise.

Follow the Shoe™!

Follow the Gourd™!

I have all sorts of mixed feelings about this.

There is never only “one true way” to approach a communications brief. And to suggest that there is only makes you look stupid.

So if you believe that a single approach, a single philosophy, a single positioning can be made to be right for every client, you are deluded.

If, on the other hand, you’re setting your stall out to only work with like-minded clients and brands for whom your philosophy is appropriate then that is not deluded. That is planning. That is targeting. That is segmentation.

Indeed the ideal model for growing an agency profitably and happily is a virtuous snowball. You do a certain type of work for a certain type of client. This attracts more of a certain type of client. For whom you do more of a certain type of work. Which attracts…

N.B. By “a certain type of work” I don’t mean a house style. I mean work that is based on a consistent philosophy. Like TBWA’s disruption model. Or the challenger theory of Eat Big Fish.

From the outside looking in, it always seemed that HHCL worked like this. It set out its stall to do radical work that broke sector rules and that spat in the face of received advertising wisdom. This in turn attracted clients that were looking for radical work. And so on.

But, in an over-supplied market, very few agencies seem to have the financial strength, moral fibre, or marketing nouse to deliberately exclude themselves from doing business with any kind of client.

They’ll happily (and correctly) advise clients that they can’t be all things to all men.

Then conveniently forget to take a dose of their own medicine when marketing themselves.

There’s a particular type of agency marketing about which I have the most mixed feelings.

It’s the ™ packaging of widespread best practice. Taking processes, tricks of the trade, or tools that are used in lots of agencies, giving them a fancy (Fancy™) name and then presenting them as unique Intellectual Property (IP).

The associated mixed feelings go something like this…

From the inside looking out I can’t believe that Packaging™ works. It is so transparently obvious what is going on. Surely clients can see straight through it?

But work it does.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Even though that something is actually “nothing special” repackaged as “That Special Something™”.

Packaging™ is practiced by agencies of all disciplines.

But a good friend of mine once illustrated the issue with a beautifully observed hypothetical media agency example.

Said media agency takes the client’s brief, objectives, audiences, market position, competitive set, brand values etc and feeds them into its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ model.

The farm of mainframe computers that occupy the entire basement of the agency’s building start to run the multi-variable, artificially intelligent, highly complex algorithm that sits behind Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™.

The machines suck power from the national grid to such an extent that lights are dimmed over a several block radius.

People make coffee, have meetings, have lunch, chew pencils, have meetings, and go home for the evening, leaving the model to crunch and run overnight.

In the morning the model presents its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ answer…

“Television for reach. Radio and posters to build frequency.”

A hyper-niche, bespoke, tailored media plan that uniquely meets the need of that client.


This is a funny, made-up story to illustrate a point.

But it’s not hyperbole.

It isn’t “deliberate exaggeration for effect.”

Packaging™ really can be that bad and that brazen. I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen it happen. I don’t like it. But it works.

Hence the mixed feelings.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Steve Henry talked about the importance of creative people to agency start-ups in a recent Brand Republic blog post.

I think if I were to start an agency I’d want a natural salesperson on board.

Because it certainly wouldn’t be me.

I’ve got a decent track record when it comes to converting pitch opportunities.

And I’ll happily pick up the baton of a warm inbound approach.

Keywords : converting, warm, inbound.

But generating pitch opportunities is an entirely different skill.

Keywords : generating, cold, outbound.

And, in my experience, successful business development people (agencies hate the idea of “salespeople”) are a breed apart.

They are usually cultural misfits. Very important, but different.

Like goalkeepers.

Or hospital managers.

If you want recent evidence of how bad agencies can be at marketing themselves, check out the responses to this challenge from Fuel Lines, a US based new business consultancy.

Responding agencies had to describe themselves in 6 words or less.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

“Not like every other ad agency.”

“Top quality marketing that gets results.”

“It all starts with a question.”

For me, the best of a bad bunch is the one that happens to be at the top of the list.

“Big agency vets for half cost.”

At least that statement makes a promise and includes at least two potential benefits to a prospective client. Even if I’m not sure about agencies that overtly position themselves on price.

Fuel Lines then ran a poll to see which statements were preferred by visitors to its site.

My favourite scored only 1% of the vote.

The top ranking statement in this opinion poll was “Fuelling brand activation”, which pulled 27% of the 139 votes at the time of writing.

So what do I know?

For what it’s worth, given how out of touch I am with with popular opinion on these things, my current favourite agency line is this…

It’s Gonna be Awesome is the bold, liberated, twinkle in its eye promise from The Barbarian Group.

I guess you’d have to be American to be entirely comfortable saying this about yourself.

But I love it as a cocksure (not cocky) promise of professionalism, and as an internal yardstick for assessing the company’s output, culture, people and processes. It’s a hard selling and hard working statement of intent.

And their work backs it up.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.