Small Ball: Great for Baseball, Bad for Agencies

Clients Don't Come to Us for Walks, Bunts and Stolen Bases

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
I often find myself struggling to articulate a marketing theory, or an emerging trend, only to have my friend and PJA president, Mike O' Toole, come along and nail it with a few simple words. So, the basic insight behind this post comes from Mike, and he could probably articulate it better than me, but since he's busy managing our operations, you're stuck with my version of the story.

It all started during the summer when I noticed how the trending business topics of the day influence the way we manage our agency. For months, we've been bombarded with news about shrinking budgets, increased project work, smaller assignments and the move for marketers to work with a roster of agencies. After a while, rather than forming big plans for the future, we start to scale back our ambitions and plan our business based on a set of diminished expectations. Rather than thinking big, we start to think small.

Against this backdrop, Mike and I began talking about our 2011 business plan, and he said to me, "I'm worried that as an industry we're starting to play small ball." For those of you who aren't little-league parents and baseball fans, small ball is all about eking out a run without taking the risk of hitting the ball. You advance the runner with walks, stolen bases, and sacrifice bunts. You're not looking for a home run. You're working for a series of small advantages to get a win. This is actually a pretty good baseball strategy but a lousy marketing strategy and definitely not a path to market leadership.

Mike and I speculated about why this is happening. These are just theories, so jump in. We think a big factor is that many companies are making a lot of small bets on a large number of tactics, none of them sufficient to make a big difference. Here are some examples:

  • Companies understandably want to increase awareness. Yet, with so many competing interests, on- and off-line advertising is often under funded, or disconnected from the deeper buying process.

  • Companies increase product-based demand-generation activities when they feel revenue pressure. In doing so, they don't always answer buyers' more fundamental questions about a market or a company.

  • Everyone wants a strong social-media presence, but investments in social channels may miss the reality that consumers are actually elsewhere. More importantly, companies create social programs without developing the content that make them effective and without providing a reason for people to engage.
You might jump to the conclusion that the natural instinct would be to integrate all of these activities. In reality, there's increased separation between marketing functions. Multiple departments spread this work out across an increasing number of agencies.

These behaviors trickle down to the agency. Rather than lead, we react to the trends and start to play our own version of small ball. We pursue smaller pieces of business, adjust to limited resources, and think less about our client's bigger marketing challenges. While this may be the path of least resistance for the agency ("We're just adapting to the current business climate"), we end up reinforcing ineffectual marketing behaviors, rather than promoting fresh thinking and innovative strategies.

Clients don't need agencies to think small and make cautious bets. They can do that without us. Regardless of the marketing tribe that each of us represents -- digital, branded content, public relations, social -- we earn our value by thinking big and taking bold action. It's the only way to elevate our clients and help them connect with their customers in a meaningful way.

Regardless of which way the prevalent wind blows, agencies should continue to fight for a few core principles.

Integration remains more important than ever because there's more to integrate. Our campaigns need to provide authenticity and consistency throughout the digital, social, mobile world along all the pathways that consumers travel.

We need advertising that drives engagement. It's not enough to move perceptions on a pre-post survey. Advertising must drive significant online engagement, provide meaningful content and facilitate connections between people and brands.

We need to remember that with all of the amazing technologies changing the way people behave and interact with brands, it still takes intelligent creativity to help companies stand out in a saturated environment. To quote Mike, "We're not in the business of creating stuff. We're in the business of creating impact."

It's not about the size of the budget. It's not about how many agencies work on the business. There's no end to the obstacles in sight and there never will be. It's about helping clients achieve ambitious goals that they can't do on their own. You can't get there playing small ball and waiting for a walk to get on base.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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