The Ad Agency as Curator

When 'Trust Me' Isn't Quite Good Enough

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Eric Henderson Eric Henderson
This is a follow-up from my previous post. Let's take a look at this question: So, if I don't want to fake it, how do I know when I'm getting the real deal from my agency?

Trust me, I'm _______________. An artist, a white male, a web expert, black, a surfer, hispanic, from SoCal, Asian, etc.

There's the problem: nominal experience accepted as expertise.

Agencies and clients traffic in it at the point of specific competencies -- multicultural and digital offering object lessons. There's rigor in the process, but still a lot of pedigree-peddling "trustme" in the mix. Remember all those dotcom business plans from '99? They were top-heavy with trustme.

That said, let's acknowledge one thing: Trustme works. You don't necessarily lose by hiring it. It makes money as there are 1) agencies you can actually trust and 2) shops that can successfully play on pedigree and stereotypes. It also works for a third, huge reason, one out of an agency's control: Ideas that reach beyond what we already know don't find consistently open ears.

So, how can we fight the debilitating inertia of that third reason? And why shoot craps when determining whether you're dealing with a 1 or a 2?

I think we can make a three-way assault by judging agencies through a new lens: the Agency as Curator.

Let's use multiculturalism to make the case and start with these two assumptions:
  • We'll invent an ethnicity and culture: Let's call them XFolks.

  • The marketplace is dynamic. (Yeah, scary to have to say that out loud, but it'll be useful later.)
Now, as a marketer meeting an agency-side XFolks person, all you know for sure is appearance. But, let's be real: You can still expect that person to have some kind of insight into the world of her assumed cultural affiliation -- even if she doesn't identify with it. What that insight is worth depends upon the level of her awareness within and outside of the group and her willingness to share info. (By the way, a word of advice: Like it or not, though you make these assumptions, it's still really knuckleheaded to blindly air assumptions.)

So, as only one member of that culture, that person is, for you, a curator the moment you ask her anything about XFolks. You trust her for an honest, knowledgeable take on XFolks.

I propose that, as marketers, we become even more dispassionate. We should see her simply as someone with ostensible access to the group, but who is not a member of the group. After all, most curators aren't artists.

Now we can test.

How can we tell we've got a bona fide curator/agency bringing the real deal?

Three cues among many:
  • Real curators occasionally present you with something powerfully counterintuitive. They shouldn't always make immediate sense to you. If so, they're just shuffling stereotypes.

  • In a dynamic marketplace, real curators are dedicated learners and professors. They take advantage of their unique access to study well, and they have actual systems of discovering behavior shifts, how stereotypes are aging, how attitudes change and don't, etc.

  • Finally, they know how to deploy that insight, as we saw in the last post.
In case you think I'm talking theory, try to remember the last time you saw an XFolks communication without either XFolks in it, a standard XFolks voiceover, or an XFolks phrase that went mainstream a long time ago.

Even where there's strong underlying thought and research, the tip of that iceberg often shows up as a picture of XFolks and the product. But I'm encouraged by a couple of brands stepping out onto the limb of nuanced communication -- the stuff we feel so darned clever about at Cannes. (It's not really a limb. It's a luxury treehouse when the brand and agency get it right.)

Again, I'm not saying you're losing when you deal in bad curators. Let's be mighty incorrect here: Stereotypes work! Collectively, they're the Pied Piper that lets us economize on true knowledge and conversation.

But, you're underachieving if that's the extent of your marketing. If trustme works, it still amounts to underachievement, since most of what "works" is measured against what barely worked yesterday.

There's more money in partnering with and being honest curators. Just one example: They know how to dig into seemingly homogeneous populations and hit on segmented psychographic stuff that connects deeply and emotionally with people.

Let's continue to step up the game.
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