Why Advertising Agencies Don't Advertise

Blair revisits the first piece of thought leadership he ever wrote, taking a look at why firms may or may not do for themselves what they do for their clients.



DAVID C. BAKER: Blair, today we are going to talk about why advertising agencies don't advertise.

BLAIR ENNS: That's ridiculous. Of course advertising agencies advertise. I see their ads everywhere.

DAVID: Yeah, right. The only ones I've seen actually, are the large, full page ones, where they're apologizing for something.

BLAIR: Yeah.

DAVID: I haven't seen, so you told me one time, maybe after a scotch, I can't remember. You told me that this was one of the first pieces you wrote about, are you still proud of it?

BLAIR: Yeah, it was the first piece of thought leadership I ever wrote, and it was back in the late 90's. I was doing business development for a firm, a full service marketing firm, that had an advertising division, a design division, a real estate marketing division, and an Asian language marketing division.

DAVID: Asian marketing, wait, they're selling Asian languages, Asian marketing languages?

BLAIR: Yeah. If you've ever spoken South Korean, that firm developed and sold that language, yeah.

DAVID: I'm picturing the typewriter, clack, clack, clack, clack, or were you, well, it probably was actually. You probably...

BLAIR: Yeah. It was the late 90's. I took over running a small office, the second office, this firm was based in one market, I took over the office in the second market. When I moved in, all of the clients moved out, because my predecessor, they're all based on a personal relationship with him. They weren't the best clients, so I think everybody was happy to see them move on. I thought, "Okay, my job is to build this office. I've got to start selling something. How am I going to do this?" I thought, "Yeah, I'm a writer at heart. Well, I'm just going to put my feet up on the desk and write for a little while." I had said that to my boss, the president of the firm, he was [inaudible 00:02:17] head office, he said, "Yeah, whatever you want."

I conceived of this, an article titled Why Advertising Agencies Don't Advertise. Because our firm, shortly after I joined it, we found ourselves in an interesting position. A family fight. It was kind of a family business, there are heads of all these different divisions, and me running this other office. I think we won or we were gifted a sizable print ad in the national marketing publication. Maybe with sponsors, I don't remember what it was, but we had this print ad.

The boss said to basically all the division heads, and me running the remote office, "Okay guys, figure out what the ad looks like." I forgot who wrote the brief for it, but the concepts that kept coming up, I was horrified of them, first of all, there is nothing, what about concept A? All of the concepts were trying to prove in some way or another, that we are more creative. I guess that's noble enough. But I think when ad agencies do advertise, that's what they try to do, and it's a hard one to win. I saw ad concepts, where the creative team was proposing to, in an ad, brag about the fact that we worked so hard and so late, that our spouses were divorcing us and our kids were [inaudible 00:03:48] from us.

DAVID: Oh man, that sounds like such an ad agency idea.

BLAIR: Yeah, I was the only one in the firm, who didn't find broken families funny. I was newly married, had at least one small, had two small children. I couldn't believe that this was what we're proposing. There was a lack of strategy because there was a lack of strategy in the firm. The firm was not well positioned. It had years of success based on a combination of things. One of them being the strength of one of the individuals, the head of the firm. Very good, rainmaker type business development person. The other one was a very good creative. Creative director. Those two in combination allowed the firm for many years, to kind of, not violate the rules of success, but we see this all the time. I think business development success in a creative firm comes down to positioning product, process, and personnel.

It wasn't positioned well. It didn't have, product to me is the collection of skills, capabilities and processes, that support a firm's positioning. It's the they're there, it's proof that you're able to do this, that you're able to support whatever claim you're making in the marketplace. Process is the very broad subject of how a firm goes about getting new business. Right from lead generation to navigating the sale to closing. Including that would be pricing. Then personnel is the strengths and weaknesses of those involved in business development. Then how the functions are assigned, et cetera. This firm, and a lot of firms that I've seen, really was succeeding based on the strength of one or two people.

DAVID: Right, and one of them just left, too.

BLAIR: Yeah, one of them had just left. That kinda began somewhat of a decline of the firm. Which coincidentally, coincided with me joining the firm.

DAVID: Yeah, sure.

BLAIR: I'm not sure how much of a contribution I had to the decline. It eventually was turned around and the firm was sold in a successful sale. We were suffering from a lack of positioning, a lack of fundamental business strategy for the firm. When it came to run an ad about why somebody should hire us, or the brand or the message that we wanted to put forward, we had five different people who could not agree on what we wanted to say about the firm. It was so obvious to me, in a moment of frustration I realized, very few ad agencies ever advertise. I can think of one who used to do it repeatedly, was very good at it, and they won all the awards. They really took a chance and we can talk about them maybe in a minute.

But I realized, the frustration that we were having internally, or I was having internally with my colleagues, that the reason why ad agencies don't advertise is obviously. They don't know what to say. But the question was not like why don't advertising agencies buy ads. In this case, you had a free ad, and you didn't know what to do with it.

DAVID: Back to this article then. You wrote the article because you saw how the firm was struggling thinking through this. What did you do with the article?

BLAIR: Well, I wrote it up, and I had been acquiring a list of perspective clients, and I sent it out to everybody on the list, the way that though leadership was sent in 1998, fax. I faxed it out to people. By the time I got to about my third article, I was sending it via fax and email. Then probably within 18 months, it was all email. But that was the beginning of content marketing for me, and it was via fax machine. Heady times.

DAVID: Yeah.

BLAIR: There are still some companies that require you to use faxes, like medical offices too. Some people don't even know what those are anymore.

DAVID: Why is it, can we say the same thing about other firms, besides ad agencies, why don't PR firms do PR for themselves and so on? Is there a pattern there? Why don't UX firms UX for themselves? It breaks down at that point, right? But what's the basic premise here, is it primarily that they don't know what to say? But is this about the message, or is it about the medium, if they knew what to say, would it make sense for them to use an ad?

BLAIR: That's where we get into the B to B versus B to C, right? If your clients are B to C, advertising to consumers, doesn't make sense for you to run B to B ads. You could debate that it doesn't, but I still think there's a core idea here, when it comes to lead generation strategy. I used to preach, when it comes to generating leads, we can call it marketing, do all these different things. Some of them are bound to work, who knows. The more I do this and the older I get, the more I see a pattern of the firms that are really successful at lead generation. They pick one thing, and they basically bet all their chips, they put all their lead generation effort on that one thing.

It might be writing a book, it might be a blog, it might be a podcast, it might be a webcast, speaking. It might be establishing a conference. Increasingly, I'm seeing that there should be one thing that accounts for 50 to 75% of your lead generation resources. Time, money, effort, thought, et cetera. Increasingly, I think, it at least makes sense to examine, when you're trying to determine what that one marketing channel should be, what that one activity should be. It really makes sense for you to have a hard look at your discipline. The discipline that you're selling.

An ad agency is selling advertising, a public relations firm is selling PR. Video marketing firm is selling video, et cetera. I think that's the first place that you want to look, is the discipline that you are selling, and see if you cannot be a best in class example of how to use that channel. One of the best ad agencies of all time in Canada, there was a firm called Palmer Jarvis. Out of Vancouver, up here in Canada. Then they were bought by DDB, and became Palmer Jarvis DDB. It was essentially a reverse take over of DDB in Canada by Palmer Jarvis.

They ran, they were the most creative shop in Canada for years, and they ran Palmer Jarvis, and then Palmer Jarvis DDB ran the best ads for anything that I've ever seen. They actually ran these ads and paid for them. More than one time, as firms do, so that they can enter award shows, these ads were highlighting how, maybe if you just Google them, PJ DDB, promo ad, you could probably find, I haven't looked for them in years, it's probably 10 or 15 years. 15 years since they were published. But I think those ads drew a lot of business for that firm, because they showed that they were good at what they do, and that they believed in the medium.

Conversely, if I go back to 1995, I was working for one of the world's largest ad agencies. And I and three friends who also worked in various marketing fields. One was a designer, one worked at an ad agency that I used to work at, one was a photographer, and there was me, who was also working in advertising. We started an online business in 1995, at about the time that Mosaic went public as Netscape. It was really the beginning of the graphical web. We were selling clothing with emoticons on it. We had these [inaudible 00:12:04] sayings like, "Geeks do it with more ram." 

We were the young man embracing the new internet culture, and we would just put an emoticon on a baseball hat and sell it for $50. Where you would have to download this jpeg of the order form, print it off and mail it in with a check. The business started to take off. we had a meeting, we talked about advertising, and we all agreed. All four of us are in advertising, and we all agreed that advertising was a waste of money, and we would not spend any money on that.

DAVID: But that's what you did for a living.

BLAIR: Yeah, that's what I did for a living. I didn't believe in the medium and I was selling it. I think if you really believe in the medium that you're selling, when it comes to your own lead generation strategy, that medium, that discipline should be at the top of your list. PR firms famously say, when you ask, and I know, we've had this conversation before. You ask a principle of a PR firm, how do you go about getting new business? The number one answer, it's almost always what?

DAVID: Referrals probably?

BLAIR: Yeah, word of mouth.

DAVID: Word of mouth, right.

BLAIR: By referrals or word of mouth you mean you don't do anything. What they're trying to communicate is, "Our reputation is so solid, the business just comes to us."

DAVID: If we weren't as good, we'd have to work at it, but we're so good it just comes.

BLAIR: Yeah. But I still need to hire a consultant. I'm being a little bit harsh here, but that's the place you want to get to. The problem with most of these PR firms, in my experience. They're not actively working referrals, they're not actively working a PR plan. I can think of some examples of PR firms, where they've got columns in prestigious newspapers, they are working PR. It is working for them, and these should be great case studies for their own businesses, of how to use public relations to succeed. Most firms that specialize in social media do a fantastic job of using social media to promote their firm.

I think that's an example of where firms get it right. Social media. PR is an example of a category where, they're saying the right things, I think most of them probably aren't doing the right things. Advertising is an example of a space where they're just not doing it. I've made this statement and this claim publicly in some public forums. Maybe it was something I wrote on LinkedIn. Somebody quite rightly said, "Well, you're kind of missing the point. Advertising is largely a B to C mechanism. Ad agencies are B to B businesses." I think there is some validity to that, but I know a tonne of firms that specialize in B to B. If you're a B to B.

DAVID: They're not doing it either.

BLAIR: Yeah, they're not. If you're a B to B ad agency, you should be looking at running ads. I can't think of any reason why you would not be running paid ads.

DAVID: You talked about how the biggest hurdle in your example, from your past in the 90's was that they didn't know what to say. Let me throw a few things out here, and talk about the relative impact these things have on why they're not doing the marketing for themselves. Not knowing what to say is one for sure, which you've already talked about. The other is that they're not disciplined. In spite of their best intentions, they're getting sucked into doing client work all the time, there's always something that displaces what should happen, so they're not disciplined.

BLAIR: yeah.

DAVID: Another is that they don't believe in the medium. Maybe this is hard to make a sweeping statement, but is not knowing what to say the primary thing? I've noticed that, when I, I don't do this so much anymore, but I used to look at the job list. I always wanted to see, I didn't care about the rest of the jobs that were on the list for the agency, I wanted to know where their marketing fell. The changes to their own website. How long has this project been on the active projects list. It was always the one that had been on there the longest, it was the oldest one. That's another way to look at this question. Why is it always the last thing to do? Is it primarily they don't know what to say?

BLAIR: Well, I think with creative firms, that's the challenge. I'm sure we've talked about this before. It's a theme, we can't help but keep coming back to it. A sign of creativity is an ability to bring a new perspective to an old problem. Your strength as a creative person is to think about something differently. Is to solve the problem that you haven't previously solved before. Therefore you are drawn to new and different problems. Therefore you resist more than the typical entrepreneur. You resist the idea of focus, even though your business would benefit strongly from focus.

If you've built your business and your own image that way, where you are resisting focus, you don't have a clearly articulated positioning, also known as a fundamental business strategy. Then what would you say in an ad? I suppose you would probably say some variation of, "We're more creative than the next best firm." The few ads that you do see, there's some pretty good, funny ads out there, that make you kind of smile, but it's pretty rare that you see something as good as the Palmer Jarvis DDB ones, that make you go, "Okay, that is one of the most creative ways of clearly communicating a message, that I have ever seen."

DAVID: Because these firms don't know what to say in some case, and it's not beating them up, it's just true, they're not sure what to say. Also because they're frustrated in working with clients regularly, they sort of open this up too, it becomes like a community, communal sort of a project. Like, "Hey, what should we do team?" It's influenced heavily by the fact that now we're free of client constraint. These people that are driving us crazy, they're not mucking this up now, we can do whatever we want. 

Plus, let's open this up to all of these people and give them a voice. It means that the work that they are doing, if they ever get around to it, if they get over that discipline hurdle. It's not very focused. I don't mean like positioning focused, sometimes it's just based on crazy humor, as opposed to a message that their prospects really want to hear. Almost it's designed for their peers, more than it is for their prospects.

BLAIR: When I see ad agency advertisements, that's what I think. I think they're targeted to the prospects, and I can think back now to some other ad agencies I worked in, where it was pretty clear, we were thinking about the competitor, not the prospect.

DAVID: The peers, right.

BLAIR: Yeah. When I think of the president of that firm that I worked for, it was like he thought, "Man, this is gonna be so good, you guys are gonna love this." He had just tossed into the sandbox, the coolest toy ever. You guys get to do an ad, and it's about us. Therefore it can be about whatever you want. Initially he thought, "Man, this is gonna be great." I think everybody thought it was going to be great. It just turned into this disaster. At some point, somebody sent me an email saying, because I hadn't been at the firm very long, and I was the one shooting down or bringing some pragmatism to the exercise and looking at the concepts. At some point, somebody who came from an impressive firm and had a pretty good CV, he said, "Would you mind sending me your resume and your portfolio? A portfolio of the work that you've worked on."

It descended into a little bit of a cat fight pretty quickly. But the present, his intentions were, he thought, "Man this is gonna be great. Think of the fun we're gonna have." What he was really doing, was he was demonstrating, yeah, you could say he was abdicating his responsibility to position the firm. He had already done that. He had already abdicated his responsibility, and this exercise just kinda manifested. If we have a firm that builds web properties, builds digital properties. You would think that their website would be so amazing. I don't mean all kinds of bells and whistles, but it would be so clear. The navigation would be so precise and it would have such a finish look.

Or if it's an app dev firm, that maybe it's an app right. I've only seen a couple of apps total, of all the agencies I've come in contact with. I have this visceral reaction to your idea, that if I'm a video firm, I should think about 50% of my effort being in there. But the more I think about it, it's definitely worth thinking about, I don't know where it would go, but it's an interesting thought. I wonder, I don't know, let me ask, this is kind of a weird question to ask.

But you know, there's so much emphasis on marketing automation, you gotta have CRM, you gotta have marketing automation, you gotta have a great website with all these plugins and everything. But is that true? Do you think that is at the base of everything? Or is it possible that a firm just has a very basic website with three pages, but maybe they're fairly well known, written a couple of books, speak at the right events. Would that be enough to carry the day? Or should every firm be thinking about having some great website, great list, great marketing automation, where are you on that? 

I think the firm On The Planet, the creator firm On The Planet, that does the best marketing and has the best website, is the alt design group out of Auckland, New Zealand. We put a lot of, we've invested so much into our website over the years, I'm sure you have, I'm sure all of the listeners have, it's just as more years go by, there are more things that you're trying to do with your website, there's more technology. The technology is getting cheaper. But we put all this time and effort in our websites. For years, I would just pour a glass of wine, sit down at the kitchen table and open up the website of the alt design group and just stare at it, and think, "That's what I want."

DAVID: It was inspirational?

BLAIR: It's inspirational, it's just a white page, and it has been for years. It says, "This page intentionally left blank." Then there's a link to an email address or a phone number. That's it. This business was built. The marketing for this business was built on the idea that the most powerful thing in marketing is a rumor. Right? I've only traded a couple of emails with the founders, the principles of this firm, and when I get down to New Zealand, I intend to spend some time with them to learn a little bit more. I know somebody who has interviewed them extensively, and I've read a little bit about them.

I know it's a very successful firm, and I know the mythology around this firm is incredible. The stories that circulate, not just in New Zealand, about how much money they're paid and how they win business. They can't all possibly be true, they cannot be true. But I revel in the mythology of it. The rest of us, we're putting stuff out there. I think I have 120,000 words of free advice on my website. You must have much more. We just put it out there, we're publishing, we're publishing, we're publishing. We see this, we've got content numbers we're trying to hit, we've got all these metrics we're trying to hit.

Then here's somebody whose website says, "This page intentionally left blank." I can think of at least one other firm, where the website hasn't changed in seven or eight years. It's just, you know that behind that one page, again, it's just another page. There's a mystery. The more you think about it, the more your mind fills in the mystery of what's really going on in that firm.

DAVID: But it's an intentional mystery, it's not just laziness or lack of something to say.

BLAIR: Yeah.

DAVID: I have literally told hundreds of my clients, take your website down and put up one or two or three pages with a very clear positioning statement, a way to contact you and just some statement that'd really resonate, that'd make you distinct in the marketplace. Because otherwise you're leaving your crappy website up there for another three years, while you figure out what to say. It's going to be more powerful if you just strip all that stuff away. Now of course, you can go to my website, and I'm violating that completely. I think I've overdone that, I'm too close to it.

BLAIR: Yeah.

DAVID: But more recently I've thought, "Oh my god, my website looks too much like an encyclopedia." It looks like my version of Wikipedia. It's partly because I like to write, and I think of myself kind of like a researcher/scientist. But I don't, if I were to start all over again. The problem is I don't know how to start all over again. But if I were, I know it wouldn't look like it does, with so much stuff up there. I don't know, how do we get on this?

BLAIR: It's interesting though, because basically if you're selling content marketing, or web marketing, that you need to be doing content marketing and web marketing. But I have a client whose target market is CEO's of fortune 500 companies. They're not going to, SEO is probably not the thing for these people. They read the Harvard Business Review. They read business books. He's published in Harvard Business Review and he writes business books. We agree that standard guidance that we offer around.

DAVID: [crosstalk 00:27:11].

BLAIR: Yeah, all the lead gen stuff. I get a lot of that data from Mark O'Brien, [inaudible 00:27:15]. We agreed that it's just not relevant to his business, because his target audience, that's not the best way to get to his target audience.

DAVID: Yeah, yeah, I'm selling insight hopefully, so maybe that's why I do some of what I do, but I'm also doing it because I'm comfortable with it, which isn't a very market focused way to do it. It's really interesting. As I was going, ranting on and on about how people ought to just rip their website down and put two or three pages up, I'm thinking, "Well that's easy for you to say David, you haven't done it yourself." I'm not really happy with, it's all my fault. I'm not happy with where things are right now, you gotta figure out what to do with it.

BLAIR: Yeah, a poet's gotta poet though. You're a writer, you've got to write. In the field you're in, I'm the same way, I'm a writer, I've got to write. So I'm gonna write. If that sustains a business, great. At my core, and I think at your core too, we're both writers. We need to write like we need to breathe.

DAVID: Yeah.

BLAIR: Therefore it makes sense for us to write. We both have been in the position, where we're advising clients who are not writers to write and get on this content marketing game. That's just, I don't think I've given wise advice on that over the years. I need to recognize more that there isn't one pattern that works for every marketing firm. Even though the marketing firms might be quite similar.

DAVID: We should be telling our clients, you have to write, but you don't have to publish it. You'll never figure out what you believe, what you think, unless you somehow develop the content. It doesn't have to be a traditional article. It might be preparing for a webinar, it might be thinking through a podcast or whatever it is. You do have to think, you have to get smarter, but you can do it through lots of different ways. Actually, if the agency principle is not having fun with it, they're just not gonna do it. It has to have that element too.

BLAIR: Yeah. Okay, we could go deeper into that. I think we've done a podcast on that. [crosstalk 00:29:21].

DAVID: Yeah, I think we've done this podcast too, so.

BLAIR: We've beat the crap out of this dead horse, it's time to end this sucker.

DAVID: All right. Thank you Blair.

BLAIR: Thanks David, that was fun.

David Baker