What Ad Agencies Can Learn From Hookers and Virgins

Clients Want Trusted Partners, not Someone Who'll Fake It

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Tom Martin Tom Martin
A few weeks ago, this tweet crossed my path: "agency advising on digital branding that isn't active in the digital space is like a virgin showing a hooker the ropes."

My first reaction was pure laughter and, of course, a retweet. My second reaction was "I need to write a post on this topic." Then Marc Meyer posted a similar, although much more G-rated version of the same thought and it reminded me I hadn't written that post. So here it is.

It's tough to be in the ad biz right now. Media commissions have been getting squeezed for years, strategy and creative fees are under enormous pressure and now many clients are experimenting with cost-plus-performance bonus arrangements. It reminds me of the warning John Murphy gave us in ADV 101 at the University of Texas: "If you can envision yourself doing anything else in the world that will make you happy and make you money, change majors now."

Advertising has always been a tough business, but making it today takes true stamina.

What we have historically done for a living -- producing ads, logos and campaigns -- is quickly becoming a crowd-sourced commodity. So who can blame us for selling vaporware to clients? For telling them, "Sure we can do that" when asked if our firm does this or that. "This or that" often means lots of new fees for your firm and with far less price sensitivity than we see with more common outputs like collateral, TV spots, and media buys. "This and that" can be the difference between laying people off and having a pretty good year. So yes, lots of firms say they can do "this or that." Then they fake it or outsource it without ever telling the client the truth.

But as Marc so aptly points out -- don't do that.

Respect yourself and your client enough to tell the truth. If the only thing you know about Twitter is that Ashton Kutcher has more fans than CNN and you heard Oprah is doing it, say so. Then ask your client if they'd like you to help them find a true social-media knowledge leader and engage that person or agency to help the brand think through and maybe even enter the social-media space. The same advice goes for all things digital.

That's what true partners do. They help each other even when it may not be in their immediate best interest to do so. Be a true partner not just a vendor looking to make a buck. Your client might surprise you and compensate you for your time, let you mark up the outside resource or reward you with additional work that they move from that "Yes, we do that" agency they work with and are about to fire.

But whatever you do, don't fake it. Sooner or later (most likely sooner) your client will figure it out or your competitor will figure it out for them. You see in the digital world, it's really, really easy to spot the virgins. Virgins may understand the basics, but they make rookie mistakes that experienced practitioners in the digital space can spot immediately. And if that practitioner is a competitive firm, you can bet they won't waste a minute before notifying your client that maybe you don't really have the digital chops you claim.

Instead, proactively invest your firm's time and energy into learning all things digital. Here at Zehnder, we spent over a year learning social media before we ever whispered to a client that we could help them in that arena. And even then, we were quite frank about our experience in the space. Prior to social media, we used the same approach for selling our behavioral e-mail services. And in both cases, instead of looking elsewhere, the clients thanked us for our candor and signed on. Could they have gotten smarter folks to guide them? Certainly. Did they? No. Why? Because at the end of the day, your client wants a trusted partner, not just the smartest kid in the class. So keep that in mind the next time you think about turning a trick versus just telling them it's your first time.

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Tom Martin is President of Zehnder Communications, with offices in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He can be reached at Tom.Martin@z-comm.com. Or follow him at @TomMartin.

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