How Much Should Category Experience Really Matter When Evaluating an Agency?

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Ad Age recently reported that Draft/FCB won the Wal-Mart account, largely on the backs of their retail experience. Matter of fact, having relevant experience
Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
is becoming the norm to win an account. And it reminds me of how many times new business prospects list 'category experience' as key criteria to be seriously considered.

Is experience in new business all it's cracked up to be?

I think not. Case in point: my agency won one of the largest pieces of business in our 42-year history without any meaningful experience in the company's category. And this was from one of the world's largest companies. Instead, we earned the client's trust with insightful strategic thinking, well-crafted ideas, and heaps of intensity. Cook all of those ingredients up and it makes for some fine chemistry. That's what should win business today.

There's heaps of hypocrisy, too. Many clients want to hear that your agency has worked on competing brands. Once they hear what they want to hear, your agency is cleared for take-off. There have even been times when we've offered to serve up case studies of competing brands we've worked on, but were politely turned down. I think many clients simply want the security blanket of being able to tell their bosses that they hired an agency who's been there before. A little CYA. Granted, I'm not referring to specialty industries, where category experience is the price of entry, as it is in the healthcare marketing sector. My rub is with the general client-agency market.

Sure, I've won because I had experience in the prospects' industry in the past. And I likely will again. But it's been my experience that expertise often leads to similar thinking, which is not what clients want from agencies.

How often do you come across a sea of sameness from agencies that have multiple clients in the same category, or a deep history of clients in one category? Happens all of the time. Take the burgeoning legal marketing industry. There are a lot of firms that trumpet their years of working on this power-law firm or that mega law firm. That gives the partners in the firm the warm and fuzzies, and the agency gets hired. And what does the winning agency turn out? Their templated law-firm doggerel. Believe me, I've witnessed it on more than one occasion. I really think agencies with lots of experience in one industry go into their grab-bag of tricks once too often, and the client is the one who pays the price.

Did Crispin win Burger King because of their fast-food experience? Nope. Did Strawberry Frog win Unisys' global business by leveraging their technology lineage? Nope again. I could go on and on.

I would like to see clients have the nerve to hire more agencies on criteria that is more meaningful to their brands. Things like insight, unexpected creative, and a plan that respects their target audience as well as their budget. If they do, agencies will waste less time scrambling in pitches and more time coming up with fresh thoughts. And clients will get work that performs more consistently.
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