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Why agencies get it so wrong when marketing themselves

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Many years ago, I worked for an agency which specialised in recruitment and graduate communications. It was pretty successful too, with a host of blue-chip clients and a stack of creative awards. It was American owned, and one day the message came from New York that a major campaign was planned, to promote the agency itself. That was the good news. The bad news was that a large consumer advertising agency was being brought in to create it. Leaving aside the substantial insult this represented to the creatives working for the business, the whole situation spoke of my employer's woeful lack of imagination in marketing themselves.

Has the position improved since then? It seems not. Writing on Campaign Live, Sarah Bradley, a co-founder of The Art of New Business, reveals the results of a survey showing that clients tend to judge a supplier on their ability to sell themselves, and are often disappointed. This doesn't surprise me at all. Of all the agencies for which I've worked, the vast majority had an incredibly random and casual approach to new business. More often than not, this involved some poor soul spending hours on the phone, trying to arrange meetings, or gain a place on a pitch list. As you might expect, this approach yielded a poor hit rate. In Bradley's piece, she confirms that decision-makers find unsolicited calls a waste of time, and worse, an unwelcome irritant. Clearly, tasking someone with doing a 'ring round' is the best way to announce you're a bit of a nuisance, and incapable of thinking up anything more imaginative; as opposed to a vibrant, smart outfit. In short, as a marketing strategy it's utterly self-defeating.

"If cold-calling is counter-productive, what's the alternative?"

If we accept that many agencies, like the plumber with the constantly leaking shower, aren't very good at applying their talents to their own needs, then what's to be done? If cold-calling is counter-productive, what's the alternative? Sarah's article describes a viral marketing business which hosts events for prospective clients and collaborators. These are very experiential, and a little hard to unpick, but importantly, at no point is anyone actively sold to. Instead, dozens of relationships are initiated, and the seeds of new ideas planted. What's more, it works - the new business stemming from these events far exceeds any crass, mass-calling exercise.

"Clients want to research their suppliers."

Of course, this wouldn't be right for everyone. Indeed, if every agency copied the blueprint, it would become stale, there'd be no surprise, and there'd be far too many events. But the lesson is obvious. If your goal is to convince potential customers you have an exciting, intelligent product - then you need to tell them in an exciting and intelligent way. It seems simple, and it is. Bradley concludes that clients want to research their suppliers, and make their own buying decisions. I agree. Attracting prospective clients, is not a matter of hard selling, it's about building stronger relationships and reputations, allowing the customer to decide when to buy. Twisting a client's arm does nothing more than annoy them, and hurt their arm.

Sadly, that's a lesson many, many agencies have yet to learn.  

Magnus Shaw is a blogger and copywriter

Photo from Sarah Bradley, January 21 2013

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