Agency Image a Hot Topic at 4A’s Summit

New-business conference draws a big crowd to hear views of clients, consultants

A basic but vital question emerged last week at the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ New Business Summit: What distinguishes one agency from another?

The importance of agency branding was a recurring theme at the day-and-a-half-long conference in New York. While agencies make a living telling companies how to position their brands, they often fail to practice what they preach when pursuing clients, panelists and speakers said.

“We ask the question, in our RFI, that says, ‘What do you believe distinguishes you from all other agencies?’ A simple question, right?” said Howard Lesman, principal of New York consultancy MatchWorks. “You should see the responses, how much agencies struggle to answer that question. It is just unbelievable.”

Shops that can’t answer it don’t give clients anything special to go on, Deutsch CEO Donny Deutsch said in a keynote address.

The inaugural new-business summit drew more than 450 people—many more than attended April’s management conference in New Orleans and the most for any first-time 4A’s conference. Organizers attributed the interest to the ravenous new-business climate and the chance to network with search-firm executives, who debated on three separate panels. “You can’t ignore them, for better or for worse,” said 4A’s president Burtch Drake.

Attendees agreed the event was symbolic. “For the first time, the 4A’s, the new-business guys and the consultants were under one roof,” said Avi Dan, managing partner at Berlin Cameron/Red Cell in New York. “It’s important that we all cooperate.”

While much of the advice was self-evident (answer all the questions on an RFP, tailor your responses to the client, etc.), it is clear that many agencies are still looking for shortcuts—and insulting clients in the process.

During a talk on “breakthrough prospecting,” executives from IBM, JetBlue and Salomon Smith Barney spent more than half of their time recounting misguided and thoughtless agency approaches. Still, they said they remain open to smart, relevant viewpoints, even if they disagree with them. “Demonstrate that you understand my business, my issues and have a compelling point of view,” said Marianne Caponetta, vp of media and entertainment at IBM.

The importance of being selective was also stressed. If your skill set, experience and culture don’t mesh with the client’s, take a pass, Berlin Cameron CEO Andy Berlin and Deutsch both said. One other factor is workload. “I have been refused by [Deutsch] several times because they didn’t want to do it, didn’t have time to do it, didn’t have the resources to put against it,” said Jane Bedford of Atlanta consultancy The Bedford Group. “So, definitely learn to say no.”

Speakers and panelists repeatedly said there is no substitute for a smart strategy—whether making cold calls, responding to an RFP or walking into a final pitch. That alone can go a long way toward garnering the respect agencies crave.