Wild Pitch

You can skip this article if you have never said any of the following in a new-business pitch:

“Our strategic development pro cess is unique.”

“Our creative is what separates us from other agencies.”

“Our level of service and relationships with our clients is unique.”

“Unlike most agencies, we really deliver integrated marketing communications, not just advertising.”

OK, since I know everyone is still reading, can we agree we have a problem here?

I’d like all ad agencies to lie down on the couch. We know Alan Green span says the recession is over, and we’re all gearing up for a turnaround. So it’s time to talk about the elephant in the living room.

Ad agencies are really bad at differentiation.

In the last five years I have heard two dozen new-business presentations from agencies in the Southeast, and every one included some or all of the “bold” claims listed above.

To make sure I wasn’t just the victim of dumb luck, I looked at the Web sites of every agency with more than $10 million in billings in Maryland, D.C., Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Of the close to 100 agencies I studied, I can count on one finger the number that don’t claim their strategic process, creative product, account handling or integrated capabilities are unique.

Worse, they all seem to take pleasure in disparaging “other agencies,” all of which apparently operate in some thick fog, wasting client money on bad ads, poor placement, me-too strategies and expensive TV shoots.

Agencies seem to think they have unique personalities, too. Every one is a little quirky, a little fun, with a passion for the business and a feel for what makes consumers tick. I’m not sure if the number of agency CEOs who spend time on their boats is attributable to my sample’s proxi mity to the Atlantic or some sort of genetic disposition of agency leaders to go with the tide whenever possible.

The “unique” personalities remind me of the nonconforming, individualistic consumers targeted by the Gap. They want us all to wear Gap clothes, right? Who is left conforming?

Hello? Don’t you think the client is hearing the same thing in five or six or 14 other Frank Gehry-inspired conference rooms? Who, exactly, are you fooling?

It’s time you practiced what you preach and actually differentiate yourselves. Develop a distinct positioning. Saying you’re unique isn’t it. It can be based on how you approach the business, the kinds of clients you’re appropriate for. Stop trying to be all things to all people (or all clients) and be true to yourselves.

Sure, you think it’s too risky to position yourself as a particular type of agency. You’re afraid you won’t be considered by a client with deep pockets who happens to be outside your self-proclaimed sweet spot.

I’ve got more news for you: There are 13,000 ad agencies in the U.S. The ad business is a $55 billion industry. There’s plenty to go around.

So, please, stand for something. If you’re good at what you say you’re good at, you won’t have to worry. You’ll proudly stand apart. And you’ll attract clients.