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New Business: Credentials, Please

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If agency credentials kits are the appetizer before a meal, too often they fail to hint at the quality of the servings to come. "Agencies are very bad at presenting themselves in a good light," says Linda Fidelman, a principal with ADvice & ADvisors in New York.

Fidelman suspects that new-business execs or account people frequently develop the kits, which accounts for their poor writing and lack of graphic sophistication. The packages also betray an ignorance of the changing face of new business, in which outside consultants—not the clients—are the ones plowing through these materials. "I don't think agencies know who their audience is, meaning the consultants. You can see that in the level of the writing," Fidelman says. "We can see through agency tricks very quickly. It's annoying. It insults our intelligence. Make it a lot shorter. You don't have to go as wide and deep for us. Cut to the chase, and save us 200 pages."

While agencies play up their singular "passion" for the work, quirky personalities and buzz words that describe their methodologies, they may do better to talk less about themselves and instead tailor their pitches around succinct case studies that are relevant to a prospect's business category or market challenge. "All of these agencies say they have something unique, and the more of these credentials you see, the more you realize how similar agencies appear," says Judy Neer, evp/managing partner at Pile and Co. in Boston. "They talk about their elaborate strategic process. Clients don't give a damn. Clients only care about how smart you are and how you'll apply that to their business problems."

In this first installment of a series examining how agencies are marketing themselves in tough times, Adweek looks at the approach of five companies that represent a mix in terms of size, location, culture and marketing discipline. —Noreen O?Leary

Crispin, Porter & Bogusky

Thoroughly unexciting" is how CP+B president Jeff Hicks describes his shop's credentials package. Not that that's a bad thing. "If people go too crazy or too deep [with their kit], they're overanticipating the chances of people enjoying or reading it," he says.

CP+B enjoys a reputation as irreverent and unpredictable, but Hicks knows that sending a credentials kit is a way of "shaking hands." The agency looks to make a good first impression accordingly. A saddle-stitch magazine, its cover done in three shades of gray with the red CP+B logo, reflects the shop's image of itself as a "factory without an assembly line," says Hicks. Printed on durable but not luxurious stock, it features an overview of the shop's philosophy and culture, principal bios, case studies, a section on the media department and photos of CP+B's new offices in a renovated mall movie theater stripped to the bone.

Text—chatty, urbane and sitting alone on the left-facing pages—explains the agency's view of its role in the communications process. "We're in the business of creating fame for our clients' brands," Hicks says. "To do that, we produce and distribute creative and branded content—not necessarily advertising."

The kit is updated annually (Hicks and ecd Alex Bogusky are working on a new one), and Hicks says he guides prospects to the agency's Web site first. "It's more current and immediate," he explains.

When responding to RFPs, the agency includes a cheeky "Field Guide to Surviving Your Agency Search," which includes descriptions of agencies, waiting rooms and common agency types.

The Maxxcom shop is four for four in pitches this year, winning Virgin Atlantic, Aero Mexico, Pony International and—just last week—Borders. ? Alicia Griswold

Hill & Knowlton, New York

If we can be judged on merits rather than looks, that's where the value lies," says Lily Loh, director of U.S. business development and marketing at Hill & Knowlton, the WPP Group public relations shop.

Of course, no agency ever got booted from a review based on its good looks. And sure enough, H&K's new brand identity, unveiled earlier this year, extends to the case-study booklets in its credentials kit. The old cobalt blue has given way to a new yellow-and-orange scheme that has a fresher, more energetic look and promotes H&K as a diverse, creative agency, says Loh. "Blue and gray are associated with older, stodgier, more conservative organizations," she says. "We refreshed the brand with yellow and orange, which lends itself to vibrance and creativity."

On occasion, that creativity extends to the kit's packaging. For example, H&K has been known to wrap credentials for packaged-goods clients in cereal or ice-cream boxes. (For certain other clients, simple folders are preferred.) Credentials for high-tech pitches are usually e-mailed.

The kit's ingredients have multiplied of late. Previously, they were tailored to the client being pursued. These days, the agency regales prospects with tales of success across various industries. The current package includes byline articles by agency executives, case studies for a variety of clients, a newsletter from the H&K Sports division, and a booklet titled "Sportz: The Sports Brand Equity Study," which details a study done with other WPP shops that explores how sports fans around the world think of sports teams and events as brands.

The package is updated regularly. For example, the current collection of case studies, titled "First Third 2003," highlights work completed through April for clients such as Motorola, Isle of Capri Casinos and Romark Laboratories.

In recent months, Hill & Knowlton has picked up work for Hewlett-Packard and Vietnam's Ministry of Planning and Investment in the U.S. ? Kristen Rountree

R/GA, New York

R/GA takes the same approach in developing its credentials kit as it does in building a Web site: Make it easy to update, reproduce and digest. "Brochures are always out of date by the time they're printed, let alone distributed," says Bob Greenberg, chairman and chief creative officer at Interpublic Group's 26-year-old interactive shop.

The main promo piece is a folder that contains a revolving door of contents. On the left-hand side is an accordion-style time line that is updated annually. Beneath a flap on the right side are 24 case-study cards, which can be updated as clients' Web programs evolve. The time line and case studies, printed on inexpensive paper to keep costs down, are written in "Webspeak," so they can be scanned quickly.

The goal is to "bombard [prospects] with dozens of pieces of work across various industries," says Barry Wacksman, vp of business development at the New York i-shop. The shop sends a spiral-bound fact book that offers details on management, philosophy and process only to more qualified prospects.

The creative reel, which is being converted to DVD format, highlights R/GA's digital efforts for clients such as Ralston Purina and Nike. It also features footage from the agency's days as a visual-effects shop for films and commercials. "A lot of dot-com companies can't point back to say, 'We've been around long enough to do the titles to Alien,' " says Wacksman, adding that such skills are becoming increasingly important as the Web moves further into sound and video.

Despite its thorough approach toward its credentials package, R/GA primarily depends on its Web site to get the word out. After all, says Wacksman, "it would be ironic if we relied mostly on printed material."

Strawberryfrog, Amsterdam

To the long list of subversive children's literature, you can add StrawberryFrog and the Big Dinosaur. As the sole element in StrawberryFrog's credentials kit, it allows the Amsterdam agency to indulge its playful streak while stressing its point of difference by lampooning the big multinational agency networks.

The book, which the shop has used since its founding in 1999, describes an ad world run by "big scary animals" like Egosaurus ("never listens to anyone except, of course, himself"), Bureaucratosaurus ("known for its long meetings and piles of paperwork") and Networkosaurus ("the things it kills are beautiful little flowers which it tramples with its big flat feet"). The book then introduces a friendly amphibian, the StrawberryFrog, which is described as smaller and more versatile, multicultural and creative.

"Lots of agencies are very macho and aggressive in promoting themselves," says Scott Goodson, creative partner at the 63-person shop. "We want our brand to be more approachable."

Goodson says the book represents the single biggest investment the agency has made. "We printed tons of books and recouped the investment two weeks later, when we won our first major client." Since that win—the Smart Car, developed by Swatch and DaimlerChrysler—the agency has won pitches for numerous multinational brands, including Mitsubishi Motors Europe, for which it competed against heavy hitters such as Arnold's Rempen & Partners, Grey, Scholz & Friends, Ted Bates, BBDO and Asatsu. It also has created edgy, often humorous European campaigns for companies such as Xerox, Sprint and Ikea, along with U.S. work for Pfizer and Elle.

"We try to be iconoclastic with our work, and that's what the book represents," Goodson says.

The agency has prevailed in five of seven pitches this year, winning Sony Ericsson Mobile Phones Europe, Bacardi, Interbrew, Asics and Canon while coming up short in reviews for Aiwa and Federal Express. ? Kristen Rountree

J. Walter Thompson, New York

Even before the first meeting with a prospect, JWT offers its thinking on the business issues facing the client. "Our mantra is, 'Content before contact.' You've got to have a point of view," explains Roman Lesnau, director of new business development for North America.

To that end, a planner, an account hand and creatives get involved at the onset to develop the credentials package and lay the foundation for a potential pitch. The centerpiece of the package is a spiral-bound "magazine" that presents case histories and agency data in a colorful way. For example, in an attempt to enter The Sports Authority's $80 million review this summer, the WPP Group shop produced JWT Illustrated, a 23-page booklet that highlights the agency's "game experience" in retail marketing for clients such as Ford, White Castle and Domino's. Under the heading "Just the Stats," the shop outlined service offerings, office locations and how the agency works. The cover was done up to resemble a sports magazine, featuring a photo of baseball players converging in celebration.

Another piece, targeting Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim, which are launching a drug that treats stress urinary incontinence in women, focuses on JWT's healthcare experience and, more broadly, client brands that target that gender group. Throughout the 46-page booklet are photos of smiling women. (JWT London is a finalist in the $25 million Eli Lilly review; the agency was unable to get into the Sports Authority contest, which had already progressed to the final round.)

JWT can turn the booklets around quickly. (The Sports Authority piece was created in a day.) And that speaks to another agency mantra, this one from the lips of North American president Bob Jeffrey: that the shop operates like a "billion-dollar startup." ? Andrew McMains