How Tech Startups Can Reach Brands

It's less about your shiny object than how you fit in

Not withstanding the newness of what they have to offer, technology startups are remarkably tone deaf when it comes to selling their products and services to agencies and marketers. In short, they talk more about themselves than the businesses they're pitching.

That classic mistake of failing to understand the needs of a potential customer is the main obstacle preventing startups from forging relationships with brands, either directly with marketers or via their roster shops, according to a panel of leaders from those worlds that gathered at Young & Rubicam this afternoon.

"The key for us is what are you bring beyond just the code?" said Dawn Winchester, chief marketing services officer at R/GA. "Is it scale? Is it execution? Is it experience? Is it a larger data set so we know how to benchmark ourselves? What are you bringing that's different?"

Winchester added that it's difficult to decipher how one company is different from another. As such, the classic sales pitch of how great your product is won't resonate. Rather, "you have to give me something concrete, something that is actually descriptive of what [about] your product and services is different from everything else out there," she said.

Even just explaining what ecosystem you operate can be helpful, said MEC's Carl Fremont. And while showing off your "shiny object" is fine, that act alone won't explain where you fit in. That's why Fremont, the global chief digital officer at MEC, primes tech players with specific questions before meeting with them so they know what he's looking for.

Echoing Fremont's ecosytem suggestion, Jack Haber, Colgate-Palmolive's vp of global advertising and digital, said, "It's a lot easier if somebody comes in and says, 'This is where I see it fitting.'" The actual suggestion may be off, but at least the focus is on Colgate, not your company.

Bant Breen, a former media agency leader who now runs startup Qnary, is sympathetic to the frustrations of both entrepreneurs and agencies in discussions about new tech. Each has gripes about each other and many are valid. The bottom line, however, from an agency perspective, is how can you solve my clients' problems and make my life easier? said Breen. In other words, a little empathy goes a long way.

The panel discussion—part of a day-long "digital bootcamp" presented by Y&R Spark Plug (the shop's innovation incubator) and GrownUpMarketing—was moderated by Brian Perkins, a former top executive at Johnson & Johnson who now advises startups like SportsYapper via Brian Perkins Ventures.