agency-specializationFull-service, integrated, 360 degree — these are common terms agencies use to describe themselves, but it does little to differentiate an agency when competing.

Agencies have chosen to develop deep category experience, formulate a proprietary process, and even invent a new model of providing communication services — all in the effort to say that they do something different than the shop down the street or across the country as accounts are less tied to geographic regions and virtual relationships have become more common.

Full-service and integrated shouldn't be a bad word. But brands have a lot of options. And no agency wants to be the "unmemorable" one.

So, we asked a few agency executives if agencies need to claim a core competency to stand out.

Will Travis, CEO | SidLee USA

Agencies need to know what they can deliver on as clients have already defined what they need before they go out to seek agency services. Blagging a skill set you don't really have undermines the skills you can really sell, so either bolster your weaknesses with new talent or partnerships or leave them aside to focus on perfecting what you already have and know. We were known as an agency that transformed brand perceptions with Millennials, but we wanted to engage further with bringing brands to ‘live’ but lacked weight. This is why we partnered with long-term client Cirque du Soleil and created SidLee Entertainment.

Tony Mennuto, Founder & Chief Creative Officer | Mister:-|Face

Yes. Because we have so much crap to sort out in our heads — the more specific, the better. (That’s why I have a friend called “Tall Peter” and one called “Peter Who Likes Sangria Peter.”)

Recently, I met with the owner of an agency and was surprised to hear how he attracts new business. What gets clients really excited is their “Dynamic Work-Flow System” that helps producers keep track of projects. Zzzzzz right? But people love it because no one else has it. As unsexy as it is, it’s a differentiator. You can’t just be an agency. You need to be an agency that specializes in something especially special. Our pitch for our production company Mister:-|Face is: We are a combination of well-known comedy directors and ex-agency producers. We own that, and it opens doors. Once we get in the door, we can sell other stuff, like non-comedic work that will make you cry like a baby.

Erin Keeley, Director of Brand Development | mono

It's incredibly difficult to differentiate among agencies, especially for a small, growing agency like mono. Logically, specializing, either by focusing on an area of service (i.e., digital or social) or a particular industry makes sense because these are often the criteria by which prospective clients categorize agency partners. When an agency can enter a pitch room with a specialized area of expertise, it provides clarity and credibility.

But while specialization makes sense from a marketing standpoint, we believe that operationally it can come at the detriment of brilliantly effective creative. We think broadly and execute across industries and channels. Our work is strengthened by exposure to various models and constructs, and that our experience in one vertical allows us to think differently about another. And because we think broadly and holistically, we're better suited to create multi-channel experiences that engage consumers in exciting new ways.

Catherine Davis, President | Vizeum Americas

There is no one better equipped to evaluate the strength of a brand than a marketer. It is the function they play every day. So I find it interesting that agencies appear to spend so little time on developing a clear brand proposition that articulates how they are different in the marketplace.

That is not to say that it is not tough; it is. Most clients are looking for a very similar set of attributes: strong strategic skills, the ability to help them navigate in a continuously changing business environment, a bias toward rapid innovation, and a best-in-class functional skillset. That said, in a world this complex, it becomes even more important to clearly articulate what you stand for and how you can help build your clients' brands. This makes a core competency and a key point of difference imperative. There needs to be a clear reason to choose you.

Ruth Bernstein, Chief Strategic Officer | YARD

Absolutely. We are always telling our clients how essential it is to have a clear, differentiated position in a crowded marketplace—and agencies are no different. Going into a pitch, it’s crucial for an agency to have a specific expertise — be that category knowledge, creative innovation, consumer insights, etc., — and show potential clients how it’s relevant to them. We’ve developed a process we lovingly refer to as Brand Therapy (Once you’ve been through the process, you’ll understand why.). The process takes us on a deep dive into the brand’s DNA and starts to re-contextualize what’s authentic and true for a new era or audience. Ultimately the process results in ‘introducing’ brands to themselves — giving them a long-term brand idea to rally around versus something short-lived or fleeting. For pitches, we initiate a micro-version of Brand Therapy, giving potential clients a taste of our specialty, and how it can result in outstanding creative work. Our expertise helps us avoid the trap of selling an ‘idea’ and allows us to pitch the agency as an invaluable brand partner.

Matt Weiss, Global Chief Marketing Officer | Havas Worldwide

Asking whether an agency should claim a core competency to stand out is no different than asking whether a brand should be known for something special and unique among its competitive set. Absolutely. The question is not ‘whether,’ but ‘what’.

With many, many thousands of agencies in the U.S. alone, you can imagine that clients are somewhat confused or at least overwhelmed by the options and choices when seeking an agency partner. The first step in that process is understanding what an agency does, what they stand for, what they are uniquely skilled to deliver and why they are better than the competition. Often that means gearing a department or practice area towards an area of specialization (assuming it's a good growth area for the company). Knowing what you want to be known for is good strategy. And good strategy leads to good results.

Gerald Lewis, Group Creative Director | John McNeil Studio

I think there's something in the experience play. But that’s nothing new as far as I'm concerned. There have always been the agencies in Detroit that have done auto and the fashion shops in New York and Paris that do fashion. A company I worked for had a large software company client, and it was inhibiting us from getting new business. On one side, so much new business was a conflict. On the other hand, clients didn't feel we had the chops to work on anything else. It was the account/industry that defined that office. Once the client left, it was done.

In the end, I liken what we do to any storyteller or image-maker. You have to know your audience and know your story. You should be able to look at it through that lens and make messages that resonate.

Simply put, I feel like category expertise wins projects. Diversity and depth of experience builds brands, relationships, and agencies.

Originally published Aug 12, 2014 8:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


Agency Marketing