Running On Empty

Warning: This column may cause discomfort, queasiness, irritability, sweaty palms and aggressive behavior. The subject? Your agency Web site—is it exciting anyone?

OK, I’m guessing half of you just turned the page. Really, I don’t doubt it. Because after chatting with dozens of peers and viewing as many agency sites, it seems clear that “the agency site” is not at the top of very many CEO “to-do” lists.

To be clear, this piece is not about having the latest high-tech bells and whistles. It’s about Web Marketing 101. For example, one major agency site I visited had a slew of non-working links. When I clicked on “agency philosophy,” nothing happened. I tried several times. Though I may never know that agency’s general philosophy, at least part of it is clear: Online marketing is not a priority.

Many agency sites I’ve seen are self-indulgent and even confusing. For example, it shouldn’t have to take six minutes of muddling through obtuse, slow-loading Flash animation to find contact information. That’s an experience I just had on another big agency site.

Several other sites featured the always-impressive “Under Construction” notice. For those who don’t realize it, “Under Construction” essentially means, “We Don’t Have Our Act Together.” Now there’s a great message to be telling prospects, peers and potential hires. Suggestion: Never say “Under Construction.” Always have at least the appearance of a decent site up, even if it’s in the midst of major revisions. As long as you have the key pages up and they look decent, people won’t know what they’re missing. Besides, any good, evolving Web site will be constantly under construction.

I’ve chatted with many top execs these past few years, and if you ask the typical CEO about his agency site, it’s not uncommon to get a response like, “Our Web site? Um, sure … our tech people have something terrific up.” Right. I’ll bet you a coffee that CEO can’t even tell you his agency’s Web address. It’s 2005, and I know one (cutting-edge) agency that didn’t even have a Web site until a month ago. Now, what was that you were saying about clients not respecting agencies? As more and more ad dollars shift to online media, and more and more clients jump on the “dis the agency” bandwagon, you might think agencies would put a little more thought into their online presence.

Of course, some agency sites are truly inspired, and I applaud them. But surf around a bit and you’ll probably find the majority less than exciting. Informative, sure. But exciting? You tell me. And shouldn’t they be? The Internet is one very crowded cyber- party, and each site is a guest with its own personality. Introduce yourself to some, and tell me how many you find smart and charming. And if you don’t think more and more clients are doing that, welcome to the 21st century. Any advertiser needing branding and/or online marketing is going to check out your site. Because if you can’t do a great job of marketing yourself, they certainly won’t hire you to do it for them.

Interestingly, many execs I’ve chatted with freely admit to having a less-than-great site. Maybe you’ve heard the comments: “Sure, we have a site, but it’s bad.” Or, “I know, we really should have a better site [sheepish grin], but I guess you could say it’s like the cobbler’s shoes.” Excuse me, but isn’t it bad enough being behind the times without using a 15th-century analogy to defend it? Think about it.

Why do I care about all this? Because it doesn’t reflect well on an industry whose very existence is based on effective marketing communications and exciting creativity. I don’t want to give advertisers any more darts to throw at agencies than they already have. Being ad folks, we know the importance of objectivity in promoting a product or service. So here’s another suggestion: If your self-promotional efforts are hampered by lack of objectivity or internal politics, get some outside help.

Per my earlier comment that those who need to be reading this the most probably aren’t, here’s an idea: In addition to Agency Report Cards, let’s have Agency Web Site Report Cards. Put the top 100 agency names on a wall, and get out the darts. Once 10 or so are selected, get a smorgasbord of respected experts (including one top P&G exec) to do the critiquing. I suspect the results would draw attention from both advertisers and agencies.

OK, that’s my three cents. To anyone I pissed off, I warned you. Oh, my Web site, you ask? Um, sure, I believe our tech people have something terrific up.