Is Your Agency or Career Best Served by Being a Niche Player?

By Being Only 'Digital' or 'Ethnic,' You Limit Your Opportunities

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Derek Walker
Derek Walker
I hate the idea of having a "niche." There, I said it and I'm glad I did.

Now, before you get out the pitchforks, rope and torches, hear me out.

As an advertising professional, I hate the idea of having a niche. I recognize how we ended up with niches in the industry but is it really such a great thing? Yes, there is a need for specialists, but even in medicine the number of specialists is low compared to the number of generalists.

I am not blindly defending the status quo nor am I watching Mad Men, and jonesing for times past. I seriously wonder if dividing into niches is the best practice for the industry?

My last blog post and the conversation that followed got me to thinking, which lead me to write this. I don't want a niche, I don't want to be known for doing a certain type of advertising -- I want to be known for doing advertising. What's wrong with that?

Nothing. Everything. I don't know.

Yes, having a niche will make things easier, but I'm not convinced it will make it better.

Do "car agencies" create better car advertising? No. How about jewelry or fashion or package goods or banking/finance or any of the other niches we can name? What have we observed from these niches? The work starts looking and sounding alike, and the clients' bottom line suffers. We see it time and time again. And yet, we gravitate towards niches like moths towards a flame.

(A quick note to clients: Your industries -- most anyway -- are not that mystifying or confounding. It doesn't require a person with an extensive knowledge of your industry to craft a message that resonates with your target audience. You are limiting your potential for growth by limiting the type of agencies or individuals you choose to work on your business. Just thought you should know.)

There are some niche agencies that have recognized success, but for every agency that has, there are too many shops that struggle and languish.

Any niche is going to have a limited number of prospective clients. And a limited number of clients means limited growth, which translates into limited profits. I know I cut out a few steps but for those who are always screaming that advertising is a business, I wanted to point this out because it is not good business to limit profits. And what businessperson in his right mind wants limited profits?

Here's where I get in trouble. Let's look at minority advertising.

The budgets to reach and talk with the two largest minority groups (Hispanics and African-Americans) is at best a third of the general-market budgets for most products or companies (and I'm being generous here), despite these two groups leading in sales in many categories. There are exceptions but they are few. There has never been a minority shop in the top 10 agencies by size or as Agency of the Year for Ad Age or Adweek. I'm not talking about in their category -- I'm talking Agency of the Year without anything else attached to the title. Are these agencies successful? Yes. Heck, even when these shops achieve great success for a client it barely registers a blip on the industry publications' radar. Clients don't increase their budgets or responsibility nor do these shops get larger portions of accounts -- although, they rightfully deserve an increase in budget and responsibility.

And some of you champions of niches like digital or social media or mobile talk out both sides of your faces. Read the comments on the Big Tent any time a blogger posts something supporting the need for clients to recognize the power of a niche. The attacks on the need for of minority niches are well documented. Yet, none of you ever step forth and defend the need for these niches to exist -- your silence or indifference speaks volumes.

This is a niche issue, not a diversity issue. I am simply pointing out inconsistencies. I'll leave it up to you to figure out why and how these inconsistencies exist.

Yes, digital shops are recognizing some success, but as general-market shops start crossing over, look at what is happening to those accounts as well as some of the minority business.

What am I saying? This is my problem with having a niche – it feels limiting to me.

I don't want to be limited. I want to be able to do whatever advertising comes my way, and agrees with my personal belief.

What niche does Chiat serve or Crispin or Goodby or Martin or Leo or JWT or Wieden? None, and they never did. If you want to grow your agencies, study how the big shops got big; they worked on anything and everything to build a reputation for doing good to great work. Granted, success is a relative thing, and I'm not telling anyone that they have to be this or that to be successful. I am simply pointing out that those considered to be the most successful follow a different model than having a niche.

Would you honestly turn down a client outside of your niche?

Advertising for me has always been about providing solutions, addressing a clients needs. This is why I bristle at the push towards using any medium as a solution to a client's needs. The delivery of the solution is important and we can go back and forth on the percentages but without a strong message, the delivery doesn't really matter.

I believe we produce ideas and solutions in advertising, and we should never limit ourselves by saying that we can only do that for certain client categories. I believe I can develop great ideas for any client. Who in their right mind would say otherwise?

No, I don't have a statement that sets my agency apart. Wait a minute, maybe I do: "We do advertising." With all these niches out here, I'm sure to stand out.

Thank you to all those who commented on my last post or emailed or called me about it. You made me sit back and think about my position on this subject, and that is always a good thing. I'm still not sure that the impact niches have on the industry is a good thing. The only thing I'm sure of is that I am not sure.

Okay, pick up your pitchforks, rope and torches, and get this over with.

Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising based in Columbia, S.C.
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