There’s an almost crushing amount of information floating around about how to do all this marketing stuff. I’m very sympathetic to little businesses that feel like the whole thing is just too overwhelming and wouldn’t it be easier to just get an ad agency?
They’re the experts, right? Most of us aren’t doing our own plumbing or wiring, so how come we have to do the hard work of coming up with amazing messages to support our projects and businesses?
There are a couple of things that nice agency might not have told you, though.
Agencies don’t put great people on tiny accounts
You might be impressed by an agency’s portfolio and have stars in your eyes thinking about how swell your ads are going to look. Then you actually start working with the agency and find out that your graphic designer is the owner’s teenage son’s girlfriend and your copywriter is a 22-year-old who majored in "Hi!"
Agencies save their really good people for their really profitable accounts. If you’re a small shop, that’s not going to be you. Even if you’re a medium-sized shop, that’s not going to be you.
And the truth is, you don’t want it to be you. You’re not in business to make a lot of profit for the agency–you’re in business to make at least a reasonable amount of profit for yourself.
Agencies exist to sell advertising
An agency is a great example of the expression, "To a hammer, all problems look like nails." The typical agency (especially one that handles smaller clients) exists to sell advertising. That’s how they get paid and that’s what they know. They’ll work with you to decide if radio, newspaper, billboard or magazine advertising might work best for you. What they won’t do is tell you that you aren’t ready for advertising.
Traditional advertising exists in a blissful state of ignorance, with no ability to measure its results. Traditional advertising has kept lots of creatives and account directors in sharp shoes and great eyeglasses for many years. It has a purpose for a national brand that everyone needs/wants, like laundry detergent or cars.
And it is, quite possibly, the very last thing your small business can make any use of.
Agencies exist to make things pretty
A lot of agencies, if they do direct mail (that’s junk mail to you and me) at all, will spend lots of your money making something pretty.
This seems reasonable enough. We all want to be pretty. It’s deliciously flattering to you as a business owner to have a gorgeous 4-color glossy brochure that costs three or four bucks a pop to print, plus postage, plus surcharges because it’s a weird shape.
That brochure will make you feel damned good every time you see it. If feeling proud of your business is your main goal and you have lots of money, go for it. If your main goal is to find new customers at a reasonable cost, you might want to think twice.
Try proposing a simple one-color sales letter that costs less than a dollar to print & mail. Your account manager will wrinkle her adorable freckled nose. The entire creative team will need a bottle of Xanax between them. What’s cool and fun and sexy about that? Where’s the pretty?
And how will they pay the rent on their absolutely fabulous loft space on their percentage of a piece that costs .50 to print?
Agencies do not exist to spend your money responsibly
I work with agencies all the time and the good ones are full of excellent people. A lot of them really do know their stuff, and they’re smart and entertaining to boot. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using an agency–once you know exactly what you are doing.
When you know exactly what your brand promise is, when your unique selling proposition is part of your DNA, when you know what’s effective and how much that should cost, when you understand the deep core needs that drive your customers and you know exactly what buttons work and don’t work, you can get an agency to sex your stuff up a little for you. But the relationship will only work once you know exactly what you need.
Agencies exist to be cooler than you are
You also have to be strong enough to know that you’re not as cool as your agency, and you never will be.
There was a great moment in "Almost Famous" when Lester Bangs breaks the news to the poor teenaged reporter that he is not cool, and he’s never going to be cool. Thinking he is cool because he’s a music journalist who gets to hang out with famous hot celebrities is a fatal error that will lead to endless suffering. Embracing the fact that he is a writer, a dork, a terminally uncool person is his ticket to salvation. No, there are no groupies played by Kate Hudson in his future, but if he works hard he just might get good enough to write the best review ever written of Astral Weeks.
If you’re extremely cool, you might want to actually get a job at an agency. If you’re among the rest of us, if you have a real-world business to promote and real, not-very-sexy customers to woo, it’s back to all this damned relationship and communication work.