Column: How agencies can blow off commoditization

Aim to be “different,” not just better Difference is an experience, not just an idea, and certainly not just a collection of words. Difference is visceral,“ appreciated by inner feelings, not conscious reasoning.” That’s one reason why it’s so hard to develop. When marketing communications companies work at raising their differentiation quotient, they often run […]

Richard Kelly November 24, 2011

Aim to be “different,” not just better

Difference is an experience, not just an idea, and certainly not just a collection of words. Difference is visceral,“ appreciated by inner feelings, not conscious reasoning.” That’s one reason why it’s so hard to develop.

When marketing communications companies work at raising their differentiation quotient, they often run into difficulty. Being smart, creative people with cool solutions to complex client business problems does not mean they are different or immune from the disease of creeping commoditization. Being better isn’t good enough.

Most of us want to succeed by being better instead of different – better than our competitors, better than we were last year. Best in class. Best practices. Most of us who do succeed do so for other reasons, which invariably have something to do with difference, offering the world something close to priceless. The most valuable accolade from a client is “they’re not like all the rest”.

Most of us want to be ‘the same but different.’ Agencies look the same, locate in the same areas, agency people dress the same (fashion epitomizes ’the same but different’) just like school.

Clients experience this quite vividly. They see the herd stampeding to Cannes every year, not just for awards, but for parties and tribal dancing. So much so that in recent years clients, P&G in the vanguard, go to Cannes and host parties. Everyone wants to be part of this community feeling. It feels comfortable, and it feels safe. We know our competitors are sharks, trying to steal our clients and our talent, but, hey, we’re smart-tough too… we’re better than they are. Right? Maybe. But the real shark in the water at Cannes is commoditization.

Sell yourself, not ‘the work’
Differentiation matters as much for marketing communications companies as it does in any other business. When it comes to figuring out how to do it, think of how we do it for clients. They give us products and business strategies from which to develop differentiating communications and experiences.

Doing that for ourselves requires us to recognize that we are the product and subject of our own business strategy. Too often, we think our work is the product, and all we have to do is to “sell” it or the process for getting to it.

“Work” isn’t what we’re selling. We’re selling ourselves: a group of creative, problem-solving people we’re asking a client to trust, respect and pay some kind of premium for (or we are commoditizing ourselves by default).

I don’t care what segment of the industry a firm may be in (advertising, promotion, experiential, consumer research), its business is making clients love working with them, love walking in the door and, when they leave, feeling better than when they arrived.

It is not a better experience, it is a different experience.

Doing great work, getting great business results and all the analytics that go with it are not enough to sustain the growth (quantitative and qualitative) of a marketing communications company. People who keep repeating “it’s all about the work” are naive. It’s all about the gestalt. It’s all about everything, never about one thing or one idea.

Break past procurement
For a communications company to stand out from its competitors – to not be regarded by its procurement group as a commodity purchase – it must actually be different. The degree of difference should be startling, insane. If this exists, it must be communicated. To be communicated, it must be understood.

A lot of the time, great talent (different, not just better) does not understand its strengths. And when truly different organizations don’t appreciate what they have, they don’t work on making the most of the experience they deliver to clients. They don’t get around to finding additional and more profitable services that exploit this advantage. Agencies need a pipeline of more profitable new offerings to keep growing organically.

For companies that do not have a clear difference on which to build, the question is “What would it take to rethink the business? Is it achievable? Is the will to do so there? If the will to create something different exists, how do you do it?”

The answers are the same as any other business – slough off the undifferentiated bits, spot unsatisfied needs and create new products to fill the gaps. This is about business strategy, not branding. To go from undifferentiated to differentiated takes hard, strategic work. It’s not a marketing communications problem.

An obsession with difference – and with providing clients with insanely different experiences in terms of people, offerings, ways of thinking, working and interacting – is the best way to obliterate all talk of commoditization. Elevating the richness of experience between clients and agencies is revitalizing, enlarging, energizing for both. Marketing is supposed to be big and powerful and colorful and awesome. Agencies need to be all these things. The experience of it must be visceral.

Richard Kelly has worked in agencies in London, New York, L.A., and Toronto. He was president of Scali McCabe Sloves Canada and Wells Rich Greene L.A. He has been a senior vice-president at Molson and consultant to corporate and, most recently, agency clients at Richard Kelly Consulting.