Don't Let Your Ad Agency Be a Cover Band

Originality Is Easier Said Than Done

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The Accidental Creative podcast has a rather brilliant mantra that it subscribes to: "Cover bands don't change the world." This applies so well to the agency business. Our industry comprises countless talented agencies, big and small, and of every imaginable specialty. And yet the majority of them manage their operations as if they're in cover bands.

Cover bands often comprise talented musicians. It's not that they aren't capable or don't have the right tools to become original stars. What keeps musicians in cover bands and makes rock stars famous is a very different perception of passion and desire. Cover bands don't have the desire to bust out on their own. Cover bands don't share the value of being original. Cover bands are most comfortable with what's been done before. Sound familiar?

In every category of agency, there are great agencies, lame agencies and agencies that act like cover bands. You know them. Maybe you've worked in one, or perhaps your brand has hired one. On the surface, they appear to be acting just like the rock stars you thought they were. But once you dig deeper, you see that they're just like every other average agency in the business.

Agencies that operate like cover bands are held together by and driven from a fear of change, or a lack of passion to be different than their industry brothers and sisters. They're controlled by statements like:

"Because we've always done it like that ."

"If it's not broken, why fix it?"

"That's not the way it works in our industry."

"Agencies don't do that ."

It's not easy to become a rock star. In a recent dinner conversation with friends over what it takes to build a great agency, I suggested that there are three layers to a rock star agency:

1. Great work. Every agency you worship is likely loaded with a giant collection of greatest hits.

2. Fantastic talent. We're in the people business. No great agency will succeed if it's populated by people who aren't continually stellar. From technical wizards to grand visionaries, a great agency can't survive without top talent.

3. Originality. This is the icing on the cake, applies to everything from operations to self-promotion, and it's likely what people will see and know about the agency before anything else. It's also the component that the majority of agencies in our business are missing.

It's originality that separates the spectacular from the mundane. It's originality that separates the cover bands from the rock stars. Yet this is the layer where agencies find the most difficulty in achieving greatness. Winning in originality requires originality. You've got to be different, a trailblazer or a trendsetter -- and there's no written game plan for getting there.

Building originality into your agency's culture requires the willingness to change, to listen to grand ideas, and to experiment with things that you haven't done before. Or that anyone's done before. You'll need to be comfortable with failure. (Nearly every great band has had its share of failed singles, concerts and bass players.) And you'll need to get your band-mates unified toward a common vision.

It's ironic that so many in our industry have a hard time being original. They're coming up with innovative, original conceptual work for their clients each and every day. But when it comes to taking care of themselves, plenty of agencies stick with the "we've always done it like that " approach. And in a noisy industry space, that 's not enough to stand out, and leaves clients and talent looking for another band.

Is your agency ready for a sell-out show? To bust out and do things that have never been done before? To change the way clients, employees or fans think of an agency? What could you be doing differently in the way you operate, the manner in which you interact with your employees, the content that you're creating or how you position your agency? Are you ready for the big show? An audience awaits.

Darryl Ohrt is a former punk rocker and chief contributor to the greatest blog in all of the land, BrandFlakesForBreakfast. While his official title is president, his business card says he's "Prime Minister of Awesome" at Humongo, a Source Marketing company. Darryl knows just enough to be dangerous. He's on the internet right now, playing, investigating and exploring. Watch out.
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