Are You Overpromising and Underdelivering?

Claiming Capabilities You Don't Have Is Bad for You, Your Clients and the Industry

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Jennifer Modarelli
Jennifer Modarelli
In the dialogue that takes place on this site, we have persistently heard clients talk about agencies' lack of differentiation. We ourselves have acknowledged that this challenge may be contributing to the "commoditization" of the industry.

Now, I agree wholeheartedly that each agency must work very hard to find what differentiates itself and to market itself with the same level of savvy and prowess we bring to our clients' marketing challenges. To win, we must help customers understand what value we will bring to the engagement and how that value is better than another agency's offering. I understand the passion that agencies have to grow and to win in a hyper-competitive marketplace. But this competitive drive seems to have created an unfortunate trend toward agencies holding out broader expertise than they can possibly muster, which contributes greatly to client cynicism and the commoditization of our industry.

I believe this occurs in many fields of expertise, but as the head of a digital agency, I see this primarily in the way that many agencies big and small are laying claim to impossible levels of technical competence. Many agency websites are so crammed with technology partner logos that they resemble a Nascar stock car. Often these sites feature a long list of programming languages they can engineer in, or the ambiguous "we built a site for ..."

How do I know when an agency is holding out technical competency that they don't have? Sometimes I know it through the grapevine, sometimes we've cleaned up after the agency, and sometimes we've been down the same path earlier in our history, so we know how much a solution costs and how unsustainable it is.

For instance, can a 25-person digital agency really do excellent deployments of five different content-management systems? You can be very good at one, maybe two and be profitable. Outsourcing is a hot option for these shops, I know, but buyer beware on that approach: I've seen many a rebuild in less than 18 months.

While I'm confining my complaint to digital, I'm sure you've also felt this frustration, or analogous frustration, in your areas of expertise. It's frustrating because there's very little you can do about it, short of encouraging clients and prospects to give the tires a good hard kick when they're evaluating agencies, and to look beyond glib claims on websites and PowerPoints.

I also challenge you all to take a look at how you represent yourselves, and to be true and honest. Don't be afraid to be a specialist. Level the playing field, do what you can to maintain our industry's integrity, and search for the way through the current perceived commoditization.

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