Marketers Beware: You May Be Sitting in Plato's Cave

When Choosing an Agency, Look at the People Behind the Shadows

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Jennifer Modarelli
Jennifer Modarelli
Recently our agency was invited to propose on an RFP with a rapid turnaround, industry-leading business goals, and a strong alignment with our best practices for persona-led web design. Of the three agencies being reviewed, we were the "small agency" option. It is not unfamiliar territory for us, but it is hard to get that sling to hit two giants at the same time.

It got me thinking about what it must be like to be part of a committee selecting from a tight group of qualified agencies to execute a mission-critical business initiative. Each member of the committee must draw his own conclusion about which agency he trusts. He can't simply turn the agencies over and read the label in order to know what he is buying. He has to buy based on stories and promises -- based on shadows of past work.

It occurred to me that a client selecting an agency for a project is remarkably analogous to the "Allegory of the Cave," the famous story from Plato's "Republic" (and the one thing people seem to retain from their college philosophy classes).

In the story, Plato imagines people who have lived their entire lives chained in a cave facing one direction. There is a large fire behind them, and things that pass between the fire and the people cast a shadow on the wall the people are restricted to seeing. The people, having no other reference points, begin to give these shadows form and meaning. The shadows become their realities. It is not until a person is freed from a cave and experience the world of material sensation that they will understand that the shadows are not a reality at all.

It is not much of a stretch to say that the committee sees only the shadows that agencies cast on the wall, not the material reality behind them. The committee sees beautiful work and analogous solutions that the agency has created for others. It sees these shadows most often without the benefit of the material sensation of their dimensional forms: the combination of talent that actually created the work.

I understand why a slick pitch and a fantastic shadow show can make the committee feel comfortable and safe in making their choice; after all, agencies should be able to sell themselves. But committees should be sure to meet the forces behind the shadows, the architects of the work you are seeing, and not just the results. Be sure that they are the people who will be working on your account. Insist for the best and then expect it.

If the committee wants to see beyond the shadows, they have to focus on what matters most to the success of the project: the intelligence and skill of the precise team and the track record of that team within the agency .

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