Why Are We So Alike?

Identity Crisis Keeps Agencies From Connecting With Clients

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Why is it that we agencies see ourselves as unique, while marketers count us at a dime a dozen? How do you know if you're among the dozen?

Bart Cleveland Bart Cleveland
Name one thing your agency provides a client that is truly unique and beneficial. Forget about process -- everyone has it. Every agency's got experience with major brands, and successful case studies in the books, too. Oh, and forget about great work. Most clients with their own tastes don't see the subtle quality in what we do.

Outside of these qualifiers, what makes your agency unique? Tough one, huh? I've worked for quite a few agencies in my career, and this question remains a malady that plagues all. Time to 'fess up to the fact that we, the experts in differentiating brands from their competitors, are not measuring up to our own standards.

We say the same things the same way. We give fancy names to our unique branding process and think that's enough distinction. We parade our award-winning work before prospective clients as if that alone could communicate our creative abilities. When pitching new business, we create a dynamic brand execution on spec to illustrate our superior insight. We do all of these things and still most clients eye us as one and the same.

It's apparent that who you are, not what you do, will set you furthest from the competition. An agency truly different in soul will reflect this sense of self in its work.

Don't fool yourself into thinking that being a specialist tells who you are. B2B, retail and health care don't build an agency's brand identity. A specialty only paints you into a niche corner, and hastens your demise when things inevitably go south. Your identity must be about your approach, how you view your work.

Is Apple's brand identity personal electronics? Of course not -- it's the freedom to be an individual. Alex Bogusky has said his agency's work should change how people relate to and interact with advertising. Hence Crispin's quest to continually mold the definition of the industry. That's an identity.

A philosophical identity can also help an agency find its "soul mate." It's no surprise that a client usually hires the agency with which it has the best chemistry. Look at Nike. They had an identity before they had a brand identity. Their soul made Wieden & Kennedy famous. But it wouldn't have happened if the agency didn't have a soul of its own.

Nike has just handed over a big piece of its brand to Crispin. Could it be they seek an agency whose own brand is constantly redefining the ad industry? It's obvious that agencies with identities connect more readily with marketers who have them, too.

So why do we continue to think our products set us apart? Why do so many of us lack an identity?

A client's hire is a difficult choice these days, but I'm willing to bet the most unique agency almost always gets the win. Without notable differences, clients tend to go with the safest bet: a preexisting relationship within the agency or, quite frankly, the largest agency. But with a true identity, small agencies can trump these factors. Anonymity is death, and the lives of your accounts are on the line.
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