Why Your Agency Has to Compete Against the Corner Coffee Shop

Clients Might not Care Where the Idea Comes From -- or How Deep It Is

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So I was in a meeting with a client recently, when the marketing director announced that he'd gone "in another direction" with the web project we had recently submitted a proposal for. We had been discussing this rather significant digital project for many months and offering guidance on how to approach the new site even before we submitted the proposal.

I knew the client worked with a couple of agencies, so I was aware it was a competitive bid. But I was kinda shocked to learn who we lost the big digital project to: a coffee shop.

I kid you not. A coffee shop whose owner decided to start building websites. What the #*!? Naturally, you scratch your head and wonder why a sophisticated client would hire a coffee shop to build its corporate site. Then I shifted into defensive mode: Would the coffee shop approach it the way we would and apply best web practices? Start with a strategy process; build out the wire frames; design the navigation; project-manage all aspects to ensure a quality user experience; and execute brilliant creative? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Competing with the Cappuccino Dude came on the heels of competing recently with: a video production facility on a branding pitch; a business (primarily accounting) consulting firm; two college kids living in a fraternity house; and a magazine publisher. We won most of them, but maybe they'll get smarter and better over time. I know they'll get derailed from running their core businesses. So I'm not sure if this is a temporary trend or a new fact of business life.

What happened to competing with just other agencies or a client's in-house agency? Damn.

I used to be focused on 360 branding. Now it's 360 competition that 's got my attention.

Look, I'm not naive. I know the barriers to entry in the ad-agency business aren't high. But I always thought that if I kept best-of -breed clients, they would only seek to work with like agencies. For the most part, that has been the case. It's when you get a wake-up call from the place you buy your morning caffeine that you begin to re-evaluate parts of your business plan. I'll have a cafe latte, two Splendas and a new website, please.

Why is this happening? Access to tools and talent is more available. Price is likely another factor --especially coming out of the recession. But I believe you get what you pay for. Speed is likely appealing, too. A small outfit that skips process may be able to gitterdun quicker.

Sure it's disturbing. I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't. But I still sleep well at night, knowing that Brownstein Group's success depends on attracting the best talent; integrating various disciplines on one strategy; nurturing a unique culture; and maintaining best practices--all of which ultimately delivers a superior product. Yet I can never become complacent about my competition. And never will.

The coffee shops, magazine publishers and college sophomores are in the game now. I accept that . But the new players will only serve to make me up my game another notch, too.

Marc Brownstein is president of The Brownstein Group, Philadelphia
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