Fiercely Indistinguishable

Agency Positioning in a Sea of Sameness

The beautiful thing about language is that it catches on. When folks find a befitting phrase that captures their circumstance, it can take on a life of its own. And imagesat the tipping point, it becomes a phenomenon. This was the case with the phrase “voracious reader.” Somehow, anyone with three paperbacks on their nightstand in the 1990’s was suddenly a “voracious” consumer of the written word. The phrase took on a slight tone of literary condescension (most condescension is slight and subtle). For example, if you had a  Sports Illustrated on your nightstand, you really didn’t qualify as a voracious reader. To qualify as truly voracious, one was required to juggle several titles at a time from the New York Times bestseller list.

Rather than attack all the similar things ad agencies say about themselves (“best-in-class,” “fully integrated,” etc.), let’s just take a look at a currently persistent one: Fiercely Independent. I know, it sounds so cool and maverick. It screams, “we’re such tough hombres.”  There are two problems with “Fiercely Independent.” The first is,  it’s redundant to the point of weakness. Adjectives can be dangerous like that. Secondly, it’s become such a common theme among independent agencies that it’s lost all effectiveness as a point of differentiation. But, certain phrases are simply irresistible.

W. Somerset Maughm said, “Money is the string with which a sardonic destiny directs the motion of its puppets.” Independent agencies attempt to connect their w-somerset-maughambusiness brevity to a tangible financial benefit for the prospective client. Translation: “you don’t have to pay out a percentage to a holding company.” I suppose that kind of claim may be an endearing approach with Procurement. But not a single marketer in history has ever been fired because they retained a holding-company agency. Conversely, LinkedIn is littered with former client-side VP’s who took a chance on the latest independent creative Hothouse. Clients buy great creative that works. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to them where their money goes. Price doesn’t matter. It never did and it never will.

Go ahead and google “fiercely independent ad agency.” The search reveals no fewer than 27 agencies — some of which are among the best-known in the industry. One is actually an IPG agency that claims to be “fiercely independent” but can also “instantly” enlist “an army of 23,000” people through an “odd twist.” They conclude their positioning with “who we are depends on what you need.” Now that’s what I call putting a stake in the ground. As the inimitable Tim Bayless often cackled, “We have our principles — and if you don’t like those, we have plenty of others in the back.”

I suspect that I could have turned up more than 27 fiercely independent agencies; except one agency, Moroch, so thoroughly dominated the SEO search term that they ronaldtook up 15 pages of results. Yet, I subsequently googled “independent ad agency” and they didn’t turn up until page 5. The irony here is that it is plausible for a mid-sized or challenger brand marketer to run a search for an independent agency. But, it’s laughable to think a CMO will actually google for a “fiercely independent” agency. Congratulations Moroch, you own the word “fiercely”. Way to go. The further irony is Morch’s bedrock client is apparently regional McDonald’s franchisee groups. How independent it must be to push the McRib (what is that thing, anyway?).

The moral of the story is stop talking about independence and be independent. Lead your clients fearlessly. Stop selling on price and get to the real tangible benefit of your agency to your clients’ business: you make them money, not save them money.

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