Who Needs An Advertising Agency?

While traveling on business, I struck up a conversation with a colleague of mine about today’s business climate and the overall health of his industry. After a brief discussion I asked, “Who handles your marketing communications?” He smiled wryly and said, “We do it ourselves.” He reached into his briefcase and with great pride handed me a sample of his work. He explained how wonderful computer programs are that offer companies an alternative to hiring agencies. His marketing literature was grotesque.

The rest of the trip, I pondered his literature and mindset. It occurred to me that one of the biggest threats facing the advertising industry comes from those who believe they can do it themselves. It begs the question, “Is the price of custom work still valuable to the average client?” For some the answer is, “No.” I wondered what might be driving this point of view.

Cost Savings

For more than two decades, computer programs that perform page layout have been marketed as a powerful alternative to custom work from an agency. The programs are indeed powerful, but the finest tools don’t make you a good carpenter. There is more to good copy and design than generic templates that represent “one size fits all.”

The challenge we face as an industry is to demonstrate the value of our strategic thinking embodied in our work. Unfortunately, our value is best seen when custom work is placed side-by-side with amateurish examples that lack a strategic focus. The difference is dramatic, and clients often appreciate the difference after comparing agency work to their own efforts.

But are prospective clients willing to pay more for custom work from the outset? Increasingly, business people feel templates are worth a try. They believe (wrongly) that agencies provide words and pictures with ink on paper. In fact, we offer a strategy that is forged from knowledge of the industry and marketplace.

Who Needs a Photographer?

The allure of do-it-yourself work is bolstered by the large number of CD-ROMs that offer a multitude of images (many are low rez) that focus on a particular industry. The company chieftains decide to purchase these CDs with the intent of saving on custom photography. For some projects, these images suffice, but they soon become the visual equivalent of day-old bread. Recall, how stale the clip art became that was packaged with PowerPoint. Soon, all business presentations had an annoying similarity about them with the same images used ad nauseum. In most cases, this banality escaped the prideful executives using the programs–but not their audience.

Art Without the Attitude

Less expense is certainly a primary reason for do-it-yourself designers, but these software programs also promise business owners art without the attitude from an agency. You know how passionate we get, and that passion is seen as “being difficult” in the hierarchy of the client’s mind. Companies are increasingly concerned with cost-cutting measures, and creating business cards, letterhead, and sales fliers are seen as a good place to start. More companies are buying the software and expecting the office help to learn the programs as part of their regular duties. But recently, I have observed sales managers being told to create catalogs and web sites. It doesn’t take long for these employees to realize the production time required is anything but “drag and drop.” For all the client’s perceived savings, they get tired employees working long hours, who are spread too thinly to accomplish goals efficiently. The result: low-level work.

4-Color Junk Mail

We live in a society that is inundated with 4-color junk mail. Pardon me–direct mail. We pick-up and pitch brochures like napkins at a fast food burger place. Our disposable society calls into question the perceived value of producing premium marketing collateral for trade shows, when much of it is left behind in hotel trashcans. Many clients ask, “Is it worth the price?” The cumulative effect of throwing away 4-color literature has devalued the entire category of marketing communications.

Complete Artistic Control

Most people believe they have wonderful taste. They don’t. I worked for an organization that created their own marketing communications pieces based solely on the female president’s favorite color schemes. The result was a peach-colored presentation folder with teal green text. It was horrible and looked as if it had come from the cosmetics counter of a department store. The piece failed to communicate the sophistication required for the higher-education market it was intended to reach. For some companies the process of producing marketing collateral has the same appeal of elementary art class. But this is business, not finger painting for adults. It is best left to professionals. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing when it comes to representing your company’s image to the public.

Fresh Thinking is Our Real Product

Marketing communications is more than knowing what colors look right together, or having good taste. The most powerful argument favoring agencies is the fresh perspective you get from objective thinking. That, almost without exception, comes from someone outside your organization. We ask the questions in-house employees dare not say. We are more likely to press a CEO to explain themselves, or suggest a reality check. We are not an art service that offers color and copy. We are marketing strategists. As professionals who are keen observers of the business landscape, we know how to package a compelling message to consumers. In the final analysis, that is what clients will pay us to do.

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