I'm often asked which agencies are the strongest right now, so I try to study up. Yet the more I listen to them or read about them, the harder it is to answer. Each makes the same capability claims, and they are all rapidly converging on the same in-demand hotspots: General-market agencies claim to be digital specialists, while the interactive specialists claim to be general-market agencies; direct shops hire creatives, creative shops want data analysts. Few pin their colors to one strength, process or discipline. Everyone is multiplatform, client-centric and brand-building -- even those that clearly aren't.
Studying agency websites
Take a spin around a few agency websites and you'll soon see what I mean. They've come a long way in a few years in that most are actually professional-looking and have some depth to them. Leo Burnett's, in particular, is an original, slick and sticky triumph -- I challenge you not to get hooked playing with Leo's pencil. A handful even manage to highlight something that might distinguish their agency creators from the pack, McCann Worldgroup's Demand Chain being a notable example.
But taken together the content of the majority of these sites says: "We don't have a clue how to differentiate ourselves, so we're going to fall back on some fluffy concepts and jargon." The number of iterations of "we're the idea agency" is particularly depressing. Variously they declare their ability to deliver: "ideas," "big ideas," "catalytic ideas," "return on ideas," "brand ideas," "leading brand ideas," "ideas and ideas" and "ideas, ideas, ideas."
OK, fair enough. So the business is about ideas. Maybe the sites differentiate the shops by actually showing those ideas? No such luck. I found no more than half a dozen examples of ideas worthy of the name. Several sites linked straight from the "idea" slug to ads. Ads aren't ideas. A couple did try to illustrate the nature of an idea they'd had for a marketer, but that led to embarrassments too -- such as the notion that telling consumers of a candy bar to "be great" somehow constituted a big brand idea.
So what to do? Well, one big idea for a website ad agencies could do worse than emulate can be seen at Edelman.com. The independent global PR shop has turned its site into a blog and podcast landing page full of content. All the content is produced by employees and the 17 hosted blogs run the gamut from CEO Richard Edelman's 6am to Micropersuasion musings from Steve Rubel (who also writes for Ad Age Digital), from the interesting PR Catalyst from Hoh Kim in Korea to a video blog shot with a cellphone.
The site, according to traffic research from Alexa.com, is attracting more than 250,000 visitors a month. That's more than any of the ad agencies' sites and is even beating up on some trade publications' online offerings.
Direct to consumer
We already know that today anyone can be in the content business and that traditional media owners have lost their lock on audience aggregation. A marketer or agency can, if it thinks it has the skills, go direct-to-consumer. And some agencies are getting that, the best of them clearly embracing a movement toward becoming producers of engaging content, not just commercials. Yet their sites don't reflect that.
There's nothing to stop an agency from creating a destination site like Edelman's, a demonstration of content -- beyond the reel -- that shows it can find and engage people, increasingly the essence of the agency's function. Or, alternatively, they could all play it safe and stick to the almost indistinguishable pitch-talk that populates their pages today.