Remember the Lorax? He was that funny looking little orange Dr. Seuss dude with the amazing catchphrase: "I speak for the trees." He spoke for those that couldn't speak for themselves.
That's kind of what ad agencies do, when you think about it. Our main concern isn't to speak for the brand, it's to speak for the audience.
Because while we work for the client, we're not the client. We're everyday people who are trying to connect with other everyday people. We're creating things that we hope others will enjoy, so we need to put that first. And at the same time, we say what needs to be said.
It's our unfair advantage over in-house creative departments. It's the one thing we can do that they can't. Because they solely speak for the brand, not for the audience.
But we need to figure out what our unfair advantage is. Not over in-house, but over each other. The problem is, most agencies don't have one.
What All Agencies Have That In-House Doesn't
When Pepsi threw Kendall Jenner into one of the most tone-deaf ads of all time, the ad industry spoke in unison, "This is what you get from in-house creative." It was a scathing criticism, that started to clarify an agency's benefit: companies speak on behalf of the brand, but agencies speak on behalf of the audience. Pepsi said what Pepsi wanted to say. There was nobody telling them that's not what people wanted to hear. There was nobody to tell them, "No."
And that's what agencies can do. Any creative will tell you their ideas have to go through a dozen different people before it's public. Probably before it even goes in front of the client. Every creative director asks this question first, "Why would anybody care?" It's a simple one, and sometimes is asked to themselves silently, but it's necessary.
While we work for the client, we're not the client.
The drawback is, this takes time. So, it makes agencies slower. Not always slow, but slower than the direct-line-to-the-CMO speed that in-house creative departments have. But that speed is the sacrifice to make sure the work says something people outside of that company will care about.
That's our unfair advantage over in-house. But what's our unfair advantage over each other?
The Wrong Kind of Advantage
"You can take on goliaths and win, if you know exactly what your advantage is."
Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn said that. And this is as true a statement for advertising agencies as it is for social media.
Long before Snapchat, before Twitter, before Facebook and *gasp* even before MySpace, he started LinkedIn. LinkedIn saw a lot of up-and-comers come and go, and it's still one of the most popular today. And the only way it's done that, is by understanding its advantage over all the others: it's a network for professionals. Even while evolving from an online resume to a content platform, it's leaned into that.
So, why should a brand pick one agency over another if they can't define what makes them unique?
What Used to Make Agencies Unique
It used to be about who told the best creative. But as the industry is overrun with a wealth of talent and not enough jobs to satisfy them, independent shops are popping up with great talent behind them, and others are actually bringing that talent in-house (ignoring my previous rant), we're losing that uniqueness. Because everybody is unique in the same way.
We can't say "we're better creatives than the other guys," because those creatives will simply follow the jobs. And we can't say "we've won more awards," because the sheen of a corrupt awards industry is long-gone in the client's eyes. Creativity isn't the differentiator.
The Wrong Way to Be Unique
So, we've become a commodity. We've based our difference on price. We undercut each other, racing to the bottom as the lowest bidder. But that's a losing game, and as marketers, we know that's not how to win as a brand.
Creativity is becoming a commodity.
The best agencies, historically, had done this for a while. Wieden+Kennedy were culture-makers. Chiat/Day were the disrupters. Droga5 was amazing at PR-worthy ideas. But while W+K has persisted, Chiat is in pain, and Droga was saved by Accenture before they went under.
We need to find something new to differentiate us.
Be Unique By Being Unique
Whether you're an agency owned by a holding company or an independent one, there's only one way to show you have value: find your unfair advantage.
But aim somewhere other than cost, speed, or quality. Aim at a specialty. One that wouldn't just try to put you at the top of the list, but make you the only one on the list.
Maybe your agency is a master of using data throughout the creative process to make dynamic content (speaking selfishly). Maybe you're able to utilize social listening better than anyone else. Maybe you have a unique media tech offering.
The point is, it's come down to what you have that nobody else does. Technology, ability, resources, connections, it doesn't matter. But figure out what that is and lean into it. Find a niche, find a specialty, and take advantage of it.
We Speak For The Trees
Agencies are what the Lorax is for the forest. As the Lorax speaks for the trees, we speak for the audience. Most brands have good intentions, but may be mowing down the trees without seeing the effects of their actions.
Our advantage as ad agencies is to speak for the audience. But to decide who can speak for them the best, a brand can't just look to the lowest bidder. There has to be something that one agency has that the other doesn't. There has to be an unfair advantage.
Because like Reid Hoffman said, you can only win if you know what that advantage is.