An Agency by Any Other Name

Shops Distinguish Themselves by Their Work, Not What They Call Themselves

By Published on .

Mike Wolfsohn
Mike Wolfsohn
It's often been said that agencies are their own worst clients, but perhaps it's more accurate to say that they do their worst work for themselves.

This is typically for good reason: Most shops, mine included, are so busy tending to their clients' marketing needs that they neglect their own. It certainly explains why the self-promotional efforts of many agencies fail to meet the expectations set by the body of work they produce for their clients.

What it doesn't explain? Why so many agencies have chosen to invent unfamiliar, incomprehensible new ways to describe what they do.

These days, it seems the fastest way to insult someone in the marketing communications business is to call his or her company an advertising agency. Apparently that moniker is reserved for "old-school," "traditional" and "dinosaur" shops that set type by hand and make TV commercials that end with a toll-free number. (Full-disclosure: we call our company a "marketing agency" but don't go ballistic if we're called an ad agency.)

Desperate to avoid being saddled with such a debilitating label, agencies have spent the last decade fabricating a new set of business categories that are intended to reflect their modern service offerings. Chances are you've come across a few former ad agencies that now bill themselves as "Brand Innovation Companies," "Consumer Engagement Agencies" or "Idea Manufacturers."

Agencies' desire to convey that they've evolved beyond the 30-second spot is, of course, understandable. But here's the thing: If agencies are supposed to be experts at conveying what a product or service delivers, their work on behalf of themselves is hardly a strong case study. I, for one, have no idea what a "Next-Generation Ideation Agency" does or how it differs from a "Cross-Channel Consumer Connections Company."

Simply put, you shouldn't need a PowerPoint presentation, a video or even a paragraph to explain what business you're in. Car dealerships wouldn't rebrand as "Modern Conveyance Distributors" in an attempt to distance themselves from the antiquated perceptions of the car-buying experience, and neither should agencies redub themselves as a "Concept Cultivation Company" or something equally unclear. Sure, it's a remedy for guilt by association, but only because the words conjure no associations at all.

The hardest part of a chief marketing officer's job today is justifying return on investment for marketing spend, and to do so they aren't actively searching for a "Multi-Screen Experience Creators." The vast majority of brands are simply looking for an agency that, when appropriate, has the experience and resources to reach consumers beyond print, TV and out of home.

Virgin and JetBlue have changed our opinions of air travel by changing the way they think about the industry, not renaming it. Similarly, the most celebrated and successful agencies in recent years have earned their reputations by changing the way they work, not their business category. If the industry simply continues to redefine what it means to be an agency, the associations will soon cease to be a source of embarrassment.

Until then, I hope this publication will hold off on changing its name to Polymedia Consumer Experience Innovation Age.

Mike Wolfsohn is founder-chief creative officer at High Wide & Handsome.
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