Have Agencies Become Shoemaker's Children?
By Mike Carlton

The shoemaker is so busy making shoes for customers that his own children go barefoot. And today, many agencies are barefoot.
Sales is where you call the prospect; while marketing is where the prospect calls you.

The Mountains of West Virginia

Many years ago I attended my first American Association of Advertising Agencies management meeting. It was held at the tony Greenbrier in the picturesque mountains of West Virginia. I was a brand new novice from a small, Mid-Western agency.

All the iconic leaders of the agency business were there. This was their almost sacred annual get-together. And there I was, a newbe, rubbing shoulders with the giants of the industry. It was a heady experience.

At the first plenary session, John Crichton, the 4As president asked the group how many had ever worked for an agency other than the one they now led. Only a scattering of hands went up. Probably less than twenty percent. The vast majority had begun their careers long ago with the agency they were still with.

Culture, Culture, Culture

Many of these guys were larger than life. But more than that, they were the personification of their agency’s brand. And everyone knew precisely what each of them and their agencies believed in. Their connection with their agency’s culture was palpable. It was at the core of their very being.

But that was no surprise. Remember, most of them had never worked anywhere else. Each had been immersed in their agency’s unique culture and values for years, often decades. And in many cases they had personally created and shaped that brand and that culture. With characteristics that were unshakeable.

Each one had totally internalized what their agency was all about. How it saw itself. How others saw it. What it was really good at. And what kinds of work it chose to avoid. What it stood for. And what it stood against. Each one lived his agency’s brand every day of their lives. In many respects the brand and the person were inseparable.

And of course, marketers knew precisely what each agency stood for too.


Career paths are a lot different today. Personal mobility is expected. In fact, those who have not moved around are easily suspect. I have often wondered if Nancy Hill asked the same question of contemporary agency leaders how many hands would go up. I suspect that the ratio might be quite different.

And therein lays a big agency challenge.


Differentiation from competitors is at the core of all successful marketing. And the agency leaders I met at the Greenbrier had the differentiation of their agencies down pat. Their brand values were crystal clear. Each one unique. There was an intensity of brand meaning and purpose.

Remember, marketers understood those differences. That in turn made it easy for clients to select the agency they believed was just right for them. No need for elaborate cattle calls. Or complicated search processes. They just picked up the phone.

Frick & Frack

To explore the contrast with what it’s like today we ran a little test. We took the capabilities packages from a number of well-known agencies and redacted their names and logos. They were beautiful well written pieces. But all their names and identification were hidden.

Then we asked some agency savvy folks to match-up these anonymous capability packages with the names of the agencies they represented.

The results were not surprising. Match-ups were poor. It became quite clear that each agency was saying pretty much the same thing. Using different words and different visuals but the take-away was the same. It was hard to identify key differences. They were all very vanilla. The universal message was kind of like “We’re great at all things for all people.” And “Whatever you need, we can do that.” Sorting them out was like trying to find the differences between Frick & Frack.

These agencies have commoditized themselves. And they are not alone.


If agencies have allowed themselves to become vendors of a commodity is it any wonder our industry is suffering so much angst? If marketers, much less our own people, cannot distinguish one agency from another how can we expect the kind of premium pricing really effective agency work should command?

Too many marketers have come to believe that agencies sell indistinguishable stuff priced by the hour. And so that price per hour comes to be a key point of differentiation. And of course, buyers relying on price differentiation is the principal sign of a commodity.

Where is the unique character of each agency? Where is the élan? And how can someone who has worked at four different agencies credibly articulate why her current agency should be chosen over others?

The cruel reality is that it is not easy to find meaningful differences between many of today’s agencies. And worse yet, we have done this to ourselves.

A Way Out

Now there is not much an agency can do about talent mobility. Nor would we likely want to even if we could. A highly mobile talent pool probably not only benefits the individuals but the industry as a whole.

But, that doesn’t mean that agencies must be destined to live in the commodity trap. Differentiation does not necessarily need to come from the life stories of key people. It can come from the life story of a brand. Agencies that truly differentiate themselves and create a strong and unified brand can break out from the herd and command the kind of respect iconic agencies of the past had.

But building that distinct brand value takes intense focus and effort.


The old axiom goes that the shoemaker is so busy making shoes for customers that his own children go barefoot. And today, many agencies are barefoot.

They are creating brilliant strategic marketing programs for their clients. Programs that clearly establish the singular values their clients bring to the market place. Programs that give their clients a leg-up on their competitors. Programs that build and sustain their clients’ unique brand value.

No surprise here. This is the kind of value agencies deliver to their clients. Yet many agencies fail to do the same thing for themselves. It is a terrible irony that a lot of agencies do better work for their clients than they do for themselves.

What a shame!

Sales vs. Marketing

Sales and marketing are quite different. A wise professor once said that sales is where you call the prospect; while marketing is where the prospect calls you.

The agency giants I met long ago at the Greenbrier were marketers. They had perfected their agency’s distinctive brand. They made sure that everyone in the industry understood it. And then relied on prospects to contact them. Their successful business development programs were fundamentally inbound.

Yet the business development programs of many agencies today are basically sales focused. Built around outbound programs designed to initiate conversations with prospects. Often prospects that have little or no knowledge of the agency in advance. Prospects that may have a hard time telling one agency from another. And may have no interest right now in entertaining an agency change.

It is like pushing water uphill. Too many agency leaders seek a magic outbound new business sales program. But success is elusive. And when new business development doesn’t achieve the desired results, the reactive tendency is to ratchet up outbound sales with even more cold-calling or hiring a rain-maker.

But few agency leaders express satisfaction with this “more of the same” sales strategy. There is a better way.

Ask Yourself

If your agency’s brand perception is not spontaneously delivering the desired quantity and quality of inbound calls, perhaps it is time to step back and dispassionately ask yourself a simple question:

Have you given your own agency’s marketing strategy, positioning, branding and communications the same level of focus, intensity, effort and continuity as you would give your very best client?

If not, perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the marketing of your agency. Because your agency should be your most important client.

A Word About Specialization

Like it or not, specialists command more respect, and more money, than generalists. People want the best possible solutions to their needs. It is basic human nature. And they gravitate to those specialized providers that have the best track record of success addressing the customer’s particular need.

Clients are seeking resources that have demonstrated success with the marketer’s unique business challenges. They are willing to go anywhere to find an agency or other provider that they believe is best qualified to solve that need. And to pay well for that expertise.

And there is no question that increasingly marketers are unbundling their agency services and may use multiple resources for the same brand. Each selected for its perceived special expertise.

Yet many agencies still cling to the “We can do it all” full-service mantra. Unfortunately more and more marketers do not find that claim credible. And in fact, asserting universal capabilities may actually hurt an agency’s brand.

In today’s environment it is more rewarding to be an inch wide and a mile deep than a mile wide and an inch deep.

Some More Questions

Nothing in the next steps will be new to you. You know how to do this. You do it every day for your clients. Nevertheless, proactively crafting an ongoing focused marketing program for your own agency is not easy. If it were, more agencies would be doing it.

So, asking yourself some of these questions may help:

1. What is the single thing your agency is the very best at? The one most important quality that differentiates you from other agencies and resources? (This is the most important question of all – it is the one single attribute that clients, prospects, talent, you and everyone can rally around)

2. How does the advertising community view your agency now? (Getting an honest answer to this question is not easy, but it is doable)

3. How important is your differentiating characteristic to marketers? What is the value they put on receiving expertise in this area?

4. Can delivering this expertise command premium pricing?

5. Are there enough marketers that need this to provide you with the growth opportunities you desire?

6. What is the competitive situation in this market segment? Can you in fact be the acknowledged leader?

7. How would your agency’s clients define your capabilities in this area? And how do they value them?

8. What about your people? Do they embrace the agency’s strength in this area? And would they be happy becoming increasingly specialized?

9. And finally, how will you go about building and sustaining a program to embed your singular strength within your marketplace?

Defining What You Are Not

Focusing intently on what your agency is the very best at, what you are, is not an easy task. Constant voices will argue for expanding scope. This makes the flip side of this process, defining what you are not, extraordinarily important. What tantalizing diversions to reject.

It takes real courage and commitment to develop an intensity that permits you to say no to opportunities in which you cannot be the best.

But having that focus, and having the market understand it, is at the core of successful agency marketing.

A Great Pair of Shoes

At that Greenbrier 4A’s meeting years ago the head of a highly successful agency was asked the secret of their consistent new business success. With a perfectly straight face he replied, “It’s simple. We answer the phone.”

His agency had a great pair of shoes!

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