a rant on ad agencies differentiation: part 1 the missed opportunities

So. I have managed advertising agencies, I have been business development director at agencies and I have talked with so many business owners about advertising agencies as well as search consultants (kind of like executive search people for businesses looking for agencies) that I think I have seen pretty much every angle any agency has ever taken to differentiate themselves.

And I think any sane person who stuck their head into this padded room advertising agencies live in would suggest the occupants exhibit some relatively insane behavior patterns on occasion.

Look. No matter how you slice it my friend Luke Sullivan said it best “it’s all about the work.” An agency both has the work and can do the work or they don’t and they can’t (but are trying to convince everyone they do and can).

We in the agency business hate admitting it’s “the work” because then it makes us sound like a manufacturing plant cranking out widgets. Well. Tough nooogies (I love typing that). Agencies are what they produce. Simple as that.

Do they produce ideas (so they can claim they are ‘thinking agencies’)? No.

Those are consulting firms (who typically in my harsh point of view have absolutely no value to the world because they shirk the responsibility of the actual ‘doing the work’ once they have the insight/idea).


Advertising agencies produce “tangible creativity” based on an idea.

Doesn’t mean you should be any dumber because you shamelessly state it’s the work (cause if you don’t have the insight or the idea you ain’t gonna produce ‘the work’ anyway).

A person I admire said “well, our work sells shit.” That works for me too.

Does it mean they do crappy work?

Nope. Just that if you come to them and they develop work for you it will … well .. work.



So most agencies that can do the work fall into three categories.

–          Ones known for a charismatic talented personality. Jeff Goodby. Roy Spence. Alex Bogusky. Stan Richards. And going back in time … David Ogilvy, Mary Wells, Bill Bernbach. Let’s call them “zen masters.” Kind of the Phil Jacksons of the advertising industry. These are at the top but there are a slew of well known charismatic personalities that can raise the level of an agency that can and does the work to a place in the marketplace where they are differentiated. Oh. And charismatic takes on all shapes and sizes. You may not know the people I stated above but one is reserved and taciturn and brilliant, one is bombastic and pulpit worthy and one is casually brilliantly articulate and one is formal and disciplined and concise. There ain’t no formula here folks for charismatic talented personalities. Other than the fact people like to listen to them and follow them.

–          Ones who are known as an agency that does ‘this kind of work.’ So the agency isn’t driven by a charismatic personality but most probably by a distinct culture or attitude that has consistently generated a distinctive look & feel of “work” that has worked and they have become known for something. Cliff Freeman agency probably the easiest one to point out here.

–          Ones in between but wanting to be one of the above two (oh. Most agencies are here).

This third group is a morass of all size agencies ebbing and flowing as several are always on the cusp of moving into one of the two categories above and some slip in and some never make it and fall back into the pack. All always seeking that ‘differentiation’ that makes them get considered. And group three is doubly difficult to compete in because this is also the group where agencies who don’t really do ‘the work’ (because they cannot … because … well …. they suck) reside and wander around trying to look like agencies that can do the work and confuse the whole kitandkaboodle (another word I like to type).

Oh. Before I get to the differentiation thing.

So why can’t some really good agencies get up into one of those two categories?

Well. I am going to generalize but try these on for size:

–          Charismatic personality. Agencies are typically hotbeds of egos and politics. Elevating one person above the rest is a gauntlet that even the most charismatic person has to be slightly lucky to get there. It is certainly the easiest way for an agency to get in the game but most agencies waste this opportunity through politics and egos. Or. They simply choose the wrong horse to ride to the top. What do I mean by that? Well. An owner of an agency may feel they are the anointed ‘charismatic one’ because it is their name above the door. When in reality they are simply the one who has the kahones to own an agency and manage an effective agency and hire great people so it becomes a great agency. The owner is the wrong horse in this case.

–          Agencies that are known for their work. This is a complex group. Couple things fall in here. If you don’t have the account how do you get known for the work? (that is the issue but I will suggest an answer in part 2 in differentiation). Or even worse is the battle between making money and doing work. All agencies have clients in their stable where they don’t do work that completely sucks but it isn’t “all about the work” and it pays a lot of bills. Maintaining that balance is really really difficult. Combine that fact with the fact that most agencies in this group chase anything hoping it is ‘the one.’

Please note that almost everything I have written in this section translates into “the agency is not in control of their destiny.” That is until they get ‘the client’ and even then you are having to prove it wasn’t a onetime fluke but sustainable. Even Crispin, who began in group three, shifted into group 2 (about the work) and ultimately now resides in group one (Alex Boguskyland) was only able to achieve this over a period of time. It takes some consistency to move from group three to two. The one thing that doesn’t take time is a charismatic personality. If you got one ride that horse until it breaks a leg and you have to shoot it.

Ok. Back to the work and differentiation.


I believe most agencies confuse differentiation and being distinct. Agencies known for their work aren’t really different. They just have a point of distinction. For whatever their work is known for.


So. In the attempt to break out of the morass in group three agencies go to incredible heights of zaniness to break out. The most typical and tried & true is the “proprietary process.”

Whew. Okay. Unless some agency has a magic cube they throw their work into that they shake up and then pull out the magical “work that works” no one has a proprietary process.

Sure. They may be some differences. But they are nuances. Pretty much everyone does a derivative of everyone else.

Why wouldn’t you? The best processes are smart and well done and copied.

Anyway. Process differentiation is part 2 of this rant.

Part 1 simply suggests differentiation is simpler than ad agencies tend to make it. Doesn’t mean it is easy. Just means it is simpler if they would allow it to be so.

Written by Bruce