Surviving Question IIA

It’s on every RFP. It’s the bane of business development for agencies, particularly smaller ones. And it’s the key to differentiation in the agency-search era.

Question IIA: What is your approach to the brand strategy process and what evaluation measures are imposed during your process to ensure that the thinking generated and solutions presented can best serve the interests of the client? The question seeks to determine if you have an orderly and objective method for finding truth in a business that is decidedly disorderly and subjective.

Marketers have tried to measure the results of their efforts ever since Mr. Wanamaker made his famous observation that he knew half his advertising dollars were wasted, but couldn’t figure out which half. The demand for strategic accountability will only rise in the months to come, as marketers look for ways to inject more science into the art of advertising.

Those of us who believe the best advertising ideas — whether creative, media or strategic — come from instinct and intuition are a little wary of rigidly imposed systems. Strict processes may be the best way to make Swiss watches … but great ads?

So what’s an agency to do? How do you bridge the gap and come up with something that fits, not fights, the RFP model — without sounding pompous or hamstringing your agency — and steers you towards advertising truth?

The answer: re-examine the way you naturally work for clients. That’s the source for something simple that everyone can believe, that leads to great work and ultimately provides a response to Question IIA that sets you apart.

First, though, consider conducting a competitive review. Divide your staff into teams. Have them scour the Internet and promotional materials, and report back on what colleagues say and do. The results will be telling and, often, hilarious.

There’s a reason search consultants always say, “You guys all sound the same.” We do. Eighty percent of the agencies that identify or name their strategic process use some iteration of the word “brand.” The term is so overused that any strategy process so named sounds empty and clichéd.

One holding company agency talks about Brand Amplification; another uses Brand Activation. There’s also Brand Opportunity Analysis, BrandStance, BrandBuilding and BrandAudit. If you’re willing to lie down on the couch, you could hire an agency of Brand Soul Searchers who create a “deeper, longer-lasting relationship with the consumer.” Creepy, huh?

Farther afield, there are some equally dubious ideas. How about ROI (Return on Ideas …  get it?) or The Big Bang? In the winner’s circle, put Demand Chain Management, a self-important twist on the old supply chain concept.

The reality of the advertising business is we work hard and get paper dirty. All agencies cover their conference room walls with relevant information, sift through consumer trends and competitive info, argue over hypothetical strategies and somewhere hit upon an “Aha!” moment. My agency goes as far as to glorify this process as entering “The War Room.”

But that reality isn’t a systematic, repeatable process. The way we stage the development of advertising is. And you can come up with a name for how you get clients through the stages of development.

The next part I can’t put into a prescriptive. I can only tell you my own story. We went back through our briefs and realized our best clients tend to be smaller companies that need to counter-punch their way to a bigger market share. So solutions naturally favored niche over mass: pick your spots and dominate them so small budgets look bigger than they really are. That got us to “sneaky big,” a phrase borrowed from golf (long hitters with easy swings are “sneaky long”).
But that’s a philosophy, not a process. We dug deeper and broke out the components, and three stages emerged. Your Sanctuary, where the client is relatively free from attack thanks to unique strengths and competency; Your Staging Area for Growth, which plots where the most impact can be achieved with the least resources; and, finally, Your Space, which addresses how to communicate with consumers and match your values with theirs.