The Ultimate Advertising Agency New Year’s Resolution

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Peter Levitan
Peter Levitan

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shutterstock_130551335A couple of advertising agency CEOs told me this week that their 2014 New Year’s resolution is to "win without pitching." Winning new clients without pitching means that the agency’s phone will ring, that the right client will be on the line and that the client will hand over an assignment without the agency having to pitch against competitive agencies.

I said, “OK, cool, sounds like a great resolution. But, is getting a call this wonderful just a dream?”

Let me start by saying that I believe that this dream can be fulfilled. However, it takes the kind of distinctive positioning, business development planning, focus, ongoing dedication to a niche or specialty and patience that most ADHD-driven agencies do not have. For the great majority of agencies, it is a tough and long road to position (or reposition) your agency so precisely and competitively that you become a true no-pitch destination agency. Most agencies take the “be-all-you-can-be” positioning approach because, frankly, they feel the need to pitch every opportunity that comes their way.

The agency conversations got me thinking about which agencies actually live this no-pitch dream. There aren’t many that can make that happen, but here are three we can use as food for thought.

VaynerMedia: Media Specialist

Ever hear of VaynerMedia? I hadn’t until a few weeks ago. Gary and AJ Vaynerchuck’s social media agency was launched in 2009 and has quietly grown to be a 250-person agency with offices in New York and San Francisco. VaynerMedia lists GE, Dove, PepsiCo, Green Mountain Coffee and NBA and NFL teams as clients. There are more clients, but the agency’s one-page website doesn’t have a client list — or any information beyond how to make contact for that matter. This is a true destination agency. Having a rare one-page website suggests that VaynerMedia is getting a lot of incoming calls.

How did it get there?

VaynerMedia is narrowly focused on social media, and the agency’s clients want Gary V’s social gold dust. Gary is well known for his use of social media to build his $40 million Wine Library business, SRO speaking engagements, best-selling books and his online personal brand building. To see an online brand in action, compare the number of Gary’s Google search results to Dave Droga’s. Gary used his fame and expertise in social media to build his agency and its proposition. He walks his narrowly focused talk. How many agencies actually do that?

Droga5: Creative Specialist

Speaking of Dave Droga, his Droga5 wins without pitching because it has done a brilliant job of positioning itself as an uber-creative agency. It won the pitch-free Google Motorola account in 2013 because of its reputation as a creative hot shop. The agency describes itself as an agency that a Google would want to hire without a pitch: “Droga5 is an independent advertising network. Creatively Led. Strategically Driven. Technology Friendly. Humanity Obsessed.” It is rare to see an agency positioning statement this perfectly market-timed and well written.

How did it get there?

Creativity is the No. 1 skill that clients look for from their agency. No surprise here. However, owning this positioning is difficult, if not virtually impossible, for most agencies. Droga5 wins because it is Dave Droga-driven. He shows up with a very serious personal and agency track record. Clients like the positioning support that comes with Droga5’s piles of creative awards and Agency of the Year industry recognition. However, I think that Droga5 actually wins without pitching because it goes beyond the “creative” badge and high-test PR to actually walk the new agency talk. (Do you see a trend here?) In Droga5’s case, it received a $250 million investment from William Morris Endeavor, the giant talent agency, and with it, direct ties to the world of Hollywood content. Now, this is something that you don’t have to sell in a pitch. It sells itself.

As the New York Times reported on the deal and new agency model, “Matt Chesler, an equity research analyst at Deutsche Bank, said Droga5 was an agency that had historically been uninterested in replicating traditional advertising agency models. ‘They are interested in building and creating proprietary branded content and proprietary technology,’ Mr. Chesler said. ‘They are looking at their role of value creation in a much broader way than providing marketing services for a fee.’”

FYI: Dave Droga delivered his thinking on the agency of the future in Esquire. I didn’t agree.

Fuse: Demographic Specialist

I talk with agencies all the time in places like Kansas City, Austin and Portland that want more national accounts. They know the only way they can grab that golden ring is to be very special. The problem is that most agencies can’t find a specialty that is, well, very special. Do a search on healthcare specialty agencies — a “specialist” goal for many agencies. Unfortunately, it isn’t very easy to be special in this specialist-rich category.

There are exceptions. Burlington Vermont’s Fuse is a “youth culture” agency that specializes in teen and young adult marketing. Here is an agency that started in Burlington (not generally known as an advertising hotbed) and managed to get the attention of clients like Converse, General Mills, Harley Davidson, Quicksilver and Vimeo,

How did it get there?

Fuse has been focused on the youth market since 1995 and is one of a small handful of agencies that, as they say, “help(s) brands reach a mass audience while maintaining credibility with key influencers.” Credibility is the gold in their positioning. Credibility with the youth market is something that many CMOs want but really need experts to deliver. Fuse delivers.

Fuse supports their positioning with the expected “cool” looking creative but goes beyond to deliver a broad set of strategic insights into the category. Here is the copy from a recent Tweet: “Our ten panel weighs in on their rumored relationship with Facebook in our newest white paper.” CMOs that feel the need to advertise on Facebook will obviously see the value in this research. Fuse spent the time and money to add to their expert positioning.

So, can you win without pitching?

Sure. But, only a very small percentage of agencies will actually ever make the tough decisions and do the hard work required to deliver on this business model-shifting New Year’s resolution. I think that you need to be prepared to really walk your talk like VaynerMedia, rework your agency structure like Droga5 or find and work long and hard at a niche that is really a niche like Fuse has done.

One more point: The same old same old won’t cut it. When I want to think about turning a business model on its head, I always turn to Jim Collins’ idea of organizations needing a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal.) Creating an agency that is so uniquely positioned and skilled that a client will pick up the phone and immediately place an order is a BHAG. Is your agency designed for this?

While you are thinking about building a destination agency, I’ve got some more 2014 New Year’s resolutions for you to think about.

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