In Defense of Agencies – Again

I’ve read two posts over the last few days that really seemed to paint agencies in a negative light. Being an agency woman for an agency that bears my family name, I can’t help but take these attacks on agencies to heart. I know – it’s not personal, it’s business. But for me, business is all about the personal. So, let’s move on!

The Pitch is Not Representative of All Agencies

The first post, called “Traditional Advertising is Truly Dead,”  was written by Robert Bruce for CopyBlogger. Robert doesn’t tend to mince words like a lot of folks in the CopyBlogger family, so it’s not a surprise that he doesn’t handle his perspective with kid gloves here. Let’s take a look at this post carefully.

It begins with a warning:

If you’re addicted to spending ungodly amounts of money in an effort to interrupt enough people into becoming “aware” of your product, service, or idea … skip this. You ain’t gonna like it.”

Well, I could write a whole series of posts about how this is not an accurate assessment of “traditional” advertising efforts, but suffice to say I am not sure this is framing the conversation in a 100% accurate or fair way.

Next, Bruce quotes a person from one of the agencies in the first episode of The Pitch, a new show on AMC that pits one agency against another. The quote: “We pride ourselves on creativity, not playing it safe, doing things that no one has ever seen before.” Bruce is flummoxed by this quote. He says, “Creating things that “nobody has seen before” — aside from the hyperbole of that statement — could work well as ride in an amusement park, or a fireworks display, but it’s the kiss of death in the art of selling.”

I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know the whole context of the quotation (that’s right, I’m an agency woman and don’t want to watch this show) but as an agency woman, I can say that if you are in a niche business, it’s pretty hard to talk about things in ways that will stand out. I’m sure Subway has a similar problem (they were the ones being pitched in the first episode). How much can you say about a sandwich, anyway? I am not sure that the “entertainment value” is what is at stake here. Your agency should provide you with something that strengthens your brand and makes you memorable.

The next big statement in this post is this: “If you’re throwing brand advertising at the masses and hoping something will stick, you’re playing a game that’s already over. Consumers have taken their ball and gone home.”

Again, this is a pretty broad statement to make, and I am just not convinced it’s true. Our work indicates that a lot of professionals still prefer to receive e-newsletters that are nothing more than product announcements in their inbox. They WANT to know what’s new in their industry. There are people who subscribe, still, to every professional publication that is relevant to the. They WANT to read the newest thoughts. They WANT to see what’s out there. Yes, they even participate in ad impact studies. Which means they look at the ads. They recall them. A lot of them still act on those ads. Consumers have gone home – ie away from traditional advertising? Certainly some have. There’s a reason newspapers are going broke. But not everyone. And if you’re a company that has had success using traditional marketing, you shouldn’t stop based on the idea that the “game is over.”

One final statement that buzzed me wrong in this post:

The equation used to be: money x media = business.

The new equation is: time x media = business.

I think this is a false comparison, and it’s at the heart of why so many companies are struggling with social media today. Time IS money. If you are spending time blogging, you are paying your salary (or someone else’s) to do that. Time is money. Traditionally rooted or not, you have to cope with this basic business truth.

People won’t read a boring blog, no matter what

The second post came my way from Chris Brogan. His post is called Nobody Reads Agency Blogs – Or Why You Need Skin in the Game. Now, Chris wrote this post based on an article he found via Jason Falls – it’s over here. And that article includes the following quote:

“Nobody reads agency blogs, and there are so many out there it’s impossible for people to keep up anyway,” said Sam Weston, director of communications at digital agency Huge. “We put ours on hiatus while we figure out what we want to do with it. We do use Facebook and Twitter. We’ve figured out what works for us there.”

It’s a real shame this quote came from an agency person. It doesn’t make sense to make a statement like this.

Nobody reads agency blogs, or nobody read YOUR agency blog?

Now Chris sort of veers away from the agency thing and notes that nobody wants to read a boring blog no matter who it’s by, and that’s what’s missing from the quote by Sam Weston. You could be an astronaut, but if your blog site is more boring than a pale piece of milktoast, you’re not going to have a lot of readers. Period.

This is not an agency thing. This is a blog thing. This is a Web 2.0 thing. Was the Huge blog too self-promotional? Were they not getting good buzz because they’re only turning to Facebook and Twitter now? Who knows. But this is not good ground to say that agency blogs are boring and dead.

By the way, I have to point out that if you’re here reading this, you’re reading a blog post by an agency woman. As the kids say…#justsayin.

Yep, I’m harumphed

I really do not understand why agencies get bashed so often. Posts like these seem to be increasing, not decreasing. Factually, agencies are diverse with different missions, different ways of working, different…all sorts of stuff. Saying that “agencies are…” is like saying “People are…”  To me, painting with such a broad stroke, especially if you are not in the agency world, is just a gimme blog post or article. People will pass it along and unfortunately, many will agree. Traditional = yucky. Agency = bad.

Some agencies are yucky. Some agencies are bad. Some agency blogs are probably crap.

I’d venture to say the same thing is true those in the social media world. Or in the laundromat world. Or in the cooking world.

Give agencies a break, eh? Just this once?

What do you think?

First Image Credit: via Creative Commons

Second Image Credit: via Creative Commons


Margie, clients know better.  These folks understand that they need help clarifying, amplifying, and extending their message.  Agencies do this extremely well.  Bad agencies fade into obscurity.  


Funny thing is that the New Media crowd still has a long way to go before they can establish their credibility. For example, Pepsi caught the Social Bug, slashed its "traditional" budget and invested in social.  Coca-Cola kept to its traditional knitting.  A year later, Pepsi is the #3 soda maker behind Coke and Diet Coke.  They quickly reinstated their tired, old, interruption marketing - promptly seeing their sales rise.


I get where Robert, Chris, and others are coming from in that they see the power of content, word of mouth, and collaborative media. It's helpful to have an enemy.   Traditional media and their associated agencies becomes the black velvet that cradles the diamond. 


margieclayman moderator

 @Stanford Dangit. The last line of your comment is better than anything in my post!


I would agree with you - I tell my dad some of the stuff people say online about marketing and business and it seems so ridiculous to him that he literally can't understand it. With a foot in both worlds, it just is a constant thorn in my side. Hopefully the good guys win :)


Thanks for coming by, Stan! 

Sean McGinnis
Sean McGinnis

Like any profession that gets generalized or bashed, the extremes become the examples we use. Lawyers, salesmen, PR hacks, agencies: They are all the same in that the worst among them are used to "represent" the whole.


To me what's most broken about the "big" agencies is that same thing that's wrong with the "big" law firms - a failed structure based on pyramid economics. Awful, awful cultures with grinding hours and a few at the top getting "rich" either financially or in the type of work that gets hoarded and not pushed down where it belongs. That culture breeds indifference and high prices.


I heard a story recently from a marketing director who assumed a new position only to find the company was working with an agency on a project to design 5 brochures and a PowerPoint template - cost? $250,000. NOT including printing costs. Just design. Beyond ridiculous.

margieclayman moderator

 @Sean McGinnis There are most certainly agencies that give all of us bad names, just as there are really corrupt lawyers and really corrupt...everybodies. But painting with a broad brush is seldom the best way to evaluate an industry or any sort of group of people. It's really unfortunate that people with big audiences revert to this kind of post so often. It bums me out, man! 


Excellent post, Margie. 

1. On the bit about doing new things - "surprise" is critical in creative work. Without surprise (and yes, that means something must be "new") you don't get a critical piece that creates delight. The second something is rehashed, or even perceived to be rehashed, it loses that ability to give that little shot of dopamine. 

2. The attacks on agencies are funny. LET people rise up in an army of protests, get out their pitchforks and torches and chase the monster back to its castle. Meanwhile, OUR customers will enjoy a competitive advantage. Really good agencies enhance internal capabilities and bring knowledge that is altogether too difficult to build internally. 

3. I read a LOT of agency blogs. They're a resource. Of course, agencies create the blogs to "demonstrate thought leadership," but in the process create something of value for their peers and possibly even their clients. 

margieclayman moderator

 @RicDragon Yeah I really didn't understand that part of the post. I don't have a problem with people voicing really strong opinions (Uh, obviously), but I think there should be some support for them. I think you need to really understand what you are throwing under the bus before you throw it under the bus. That's what gets me about a lot of the anti-agency posts. I think they're written by people who just simply don't know fully what they're talking about, and that's a real shame. 


The problem with the blogosphere is that we spend an awful lot of time writing posts that are read not by prospective clients but by our competitors few of whom are willing to say that we are wrong.


Content marketing is a nifty thing but anyone who thinks that agencies are dead is fooling themselves. They aren't dead by a long shot. It is not unlike saying that doctors aren't really necessary any more because you can use Dr. Google to diagnose your illness and conduct your own surgery courtesy of a YouTube video.


i am not an agency guy. I don't work for one and have no real stake in this matter, but I don't buy into all the hype either. People still pay for expertise.


Not to mention that reality television has been known to use something called editing to make shows more entertaining.

margieclayman moderator

 @TheJackB Expertise is something that comes up a lot in our business. People can just take photographs with Instagram now, right? Anyone can write thanks to spellcheck on the computer. These things can be done. So what is the price for expertise? For some people, it's a price that's too high. I think a lot of industries are suffering from problems like that. The actual value of things doesn't seem to be so....valued anymore.


I think that overlooking of value and expertise is what inspires a lot of people to brush agencies off. It's really unfortunate. Hopefully there is a counter-revolution!