Been There, Done That

Ihave this dream. I’m at a big conference of marketing executives at one of those swanky resorts in Arizona. We’re in one of those vast rooms with the clinking pitchers of water on the tables. Everyone around me looks bored and tired, but then, suddenly, they all rise as one and proclaim, “Category experience is irrelevant in my selection of an ad agency!”

Then I wake up.

And I open Adweek and see another agency chosen because “they really know our business.”

OK, but do they really know their own business—the communications business? Or are they just great at using the client’s lingo in meetings?

Why, oh why do agencies with a reel of typically mediocre work in a certain category continue to get more work based on that experience? Do clients really need agency people who can talk about their business at a sales meeting as if they work at the company? Or do they need agency people who can provide directions for the brand that will actually resonate with consumers?

Did Wieden + Kennedy have footwear experience before it worked with Nike? Did Crispin Porter + Bogusky have automotive experience before it kicked ass on Mini Cooper? Heck, did Bill Bernbach have automotive experience before Volkswagen?

I can live with the client who feels a global presence is mandatory (don’t necessarily agree, but can understand). I can live with the client who thinks it’s essential to have an agency in the same city (don’t necessarily agree, but can understand). I can even live with the client who wants a steady diet of urban-metropolis entertainment provided by the agency. Whatever. I just don’t get the category-experience thing.

Now, it would be one thing if, say, Nike fired Wieden, and the next day Reebok gave all its business to Wieden. But usually an agency chosen for its oh-so-valuable experience is one that has been producing pedestrian work in a category like midpriced hotels. One whose people can talk the client’s language but whose reel fails to move anyone.

Agencies should be evaluated solely on their ability to communicate. The good ones are filled with lots of smart information sponges. They’ll learn your lingo and your business pretty fast.

We are in the business of communications and brand building. We’re not in the ready-to-drink juice business or the chewing gum/sugar-based-confection business. Frankly, if we had one of those accounts, I’d never know those businesses half as well as the people who work in them every day. If I did, I wouldn’t be an agency resource. I’d be a client patsy.

I, for one, would be reluctant to hire an agency that has category experience and so-so results. What were they doing, practicing? Just getting warmed up so they could get to work for you?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll be the first to admit that our agency has won accounts because of our category experience. Healthcare makes up about one-third of our business, and we’re often asked to participate in healthcare reviews as a result.

The flip side of that is that many prospects feel our healthcare work doesn’t make us especially qualified to handle their accounts. But consider this: Hospitals and health plans are tough creative challenges. Most of the work in the category is lousy. If an agency can craft compelling communications in that environment, what’s to prevent it from accomplishing great things with, say, home electronics?

If marketers want to keep category experience as a criterion in reviews, fine. Just don’t make it a requirement to get in. Consider things like the portfolio of work, how well the agency handled tough assignments, how much senior management will be involved. Step out there just a bit.

Because, you know, I have this dream.