Don’t Let your Agency be Part of the “Vanilla Stew”!

By Brent Kuhn in Direct Marketing on December 18th, 2013

Blogs are supposed to be controversial…right? Well, I hope this post inspires you to go out and check a bunch of websites to see whether you agree with my conclusions. If you do, whether you are an agency CEO or an assistant to an assistant your point-of-view is valuable…share it with your company and become a change agent!

Don't Let Your Agency be Part of the Vanilla Stew!

I have reviewed a lot of websites and one thing is clear to me: virtually all agencies now want to be the same! That’s right, whether their roots are in brand advertising, Direct Response or digital they are all parroting three words: results, brand and integration. Vision, positioning, differentiation-forget it! Let’s all get on the same bandwagon! It is almost comical. If you look at agency sites you’ll see that they all (with a few exceptions) claim to produce results. But they do not define the results they plan to produce for clients…just any results the client happens to desire. Even agencies that grew large as Direct Response agencies have walked away from their roots and are no longer talking about producing SALES at the lowest cost per sale. Just “results” because it is safer. Not only that, but legendary, top name DR agencies are claiming now to be brand agencies! And listen to this, so are the digital agencies! Most agencies are coming together into what I will call a “vanilla stew”. In the rush to show clients that they have the latest wares and talk the latest talk they are all saying the same things: brand, results and integration. There are digital agencies claiming to be brand storytellers without knowing what good brand advertising is, and guess what? They will integrate everything they do, which is a good idea, but it’s 60 years too late. They may have just discovered the advantages of integrating media but advertisers have been doing this since the 70’s (and well before) when I was trained in packaged goods. The advertising business is looking like a real mess right now. But it is an understandable mess as advertising, digital, content and media all come together awkwardly as they have been doing ever since the digital revolution began. All will get sorted out nicely eventually, but not just yet. Right now, this poses major vision and positioning problems for all agencies. But I will focus on the mid-size agencies (say 100-300 people or so), because as the mega agencies may be able to afford to be all things to all people, smaller agencies cannot. Perhaps they have earned the right based upon sheer size, but the mid-size shops have got to get this figured out and position themselves in distinctive ways. It doesn’t matter if an agency chooses brand or DR or whatever for its focus…it can be positioned distinctively. Our agency, BKV, has always had a nice clean positioning: We are a full service agency that utilizes direct response techniques to drive sales for clients cost efficiently and measurably. This positioning spans all media from direct mail to DRTV to the latest digital media, and through media mix and attribution modeling we gravitate our buys to the media that produce sales most cost efficiently. But there are strong winds in the industry that are blowing us and many other agencies that have traditionally been DR agencies off course and making us either re-think our positioning (most) or strengthening our resolve (few). There are a lot of forces that are changing our world: somehow “Direct Response” has become a dirty word and DR agencies are walking away from their roots, content has become a hot topic, digital agencies are claiming to be brand or DR agencies (or both!), brand agencies all of a sudden are screaming about results like they never have in the past and DR agencies are afraid of saying what they really are or they will not be seen as forward-thinking. The world is a mess. But in a mess there is great opportunity for agencies with a vision to position themselves in way that differentiates them and excites clients. My conclusion is this: the advertising business is gradually going to look a lot like the ad business of the 70’s; don’t get me wrong, it’s a whole new media world, the dynamics of advertising have changed dramatically, content and PR has power like never before and tracking and analytics and data (yes, big data) will only get bigger and better. BUT, I challenge you to make a list of 10-15 large agencies including some historically brand agencies, DR agencies and digital agencies and you will see exactly what I am talking about. You will see why I say that the business will look much the same as it always has…because the focus is and will be on BRAND. Almost everybody wants to be in the “glamorous” brand building business. With that said, here is my advice: if your agency is focused on brand (and by the way do everything else from DR to digital too), find a way to be more specific and more differentiated, because if you are not a mega shop this is just not believable. If you are a pure play digital agency…good luck. By now we all know that we live in a digital world and your specialty won’t be a specialty much longer (if it is now). If you are one of the agencies that has the mission of producing more sales for your clients on lower budgets than they can imagine…you are probably a Direct Response agency. But be real careful about how you use the words Direct Response. These words can evoke an immediate negative reaction among brand people, digital people and unknowledgeable people who have a prejudice against the words (after all these words imply SALES…how vulgar). These words have become so scary that even large, highly respected, historically DR agencies are afraid to use the words on their sites. Go ahead, plug in a few names into your search bar and see if I am not right! Use the words Direct Response carefully but without fear and you will find that you will position your agency in a way that won’t be for all clients…but those clients who want it REALLY want it! In closing I want to compliment two agencies: Eicoff and DMW Worldwide. Eicoff puts Direct Response front and center! When you look at their site you know exactly what they do, how they do it and they are credible! Hats off to Eicoff, the agency that has the guts to be Direct! DMW Worldwide is also an agency that is not afraid to put sales front and center. Like Eicoff, they are one of only a few companies that have the guts to be direct as they state clearly how they use direct disciplines to drive sales through what they term the New Direct. If I were a client I would include these agencies on my short list if I wanted to produce more sales…and what client wouldn’t? And I would include BKV whose mission is not unlike the other two: To help our clients drive more sales more cost effectively than any other agency. And this mission is backed up by not only being on the leading edge of digital technology and having an advanced data services platform but by over 30 years of experience using proven DR techniques. Few agencies can say that and many of those that can are afraid too! P.S. Watch for my next blog…Why the Publicis/Omnicom merger will mean greater growth over the decade for mid-size agencies that have the guts to stand for something!