What kind of ad agency is right for you?

What kind of ad agency is right for you?

How do you find the right agency for your business? Well, it starts out knowing enough about advertising to know that their are different approaches to advertising and different agencies approach problems differently.

Justin Oberman is a prolific poster on Linkedin and is teaching an ad history class for AdHouseNYC, this is his summary of the main strains of agencies.

If you are looking for an advertising agency or a job in an ad agency, it’s essential to understand the different kinds.
Because no matter how much an agency says it reinvented the model, when you study advertising history, you discover that there are essentially five different types of ad agencies.

  • Bill Bernbach-type agencies.
  • Rosser Reeves-type agencies
  • Leo Burnett-type agencies
  • David Ogilvy-type agencies
  • And Howard Gossage-type agencies

Here’s a breakdown:
Bill Bernbach Agencies
• Advertising is an art form
• Focused on persuasion.
• Creative Idea Driven
• Entertainment over repetition
• Believes humans make decisions based on emotions.
• Every ad is based on human truths
• Idols: Bernbach, Droga
• Example: Erich and Kallman
Rosser Reeves (Ted Bates) Agencies
• Advertising is a science.
• Focused on the hard sell.
• Data-Driven
• Repetition over entertainment
• Believes humans make rational decisions
• Every ad is wrapped around a “unique selling proposition.”
• Idols: Data. They also have no idea who Rosser Reeves is.
• Example: Any good digital DR agency
Leo Burnett Agencies
• Advertising is symbolism.
• Focused on simplicity.
• Archetype driven
• Drama over cleverness
• Believes in the down-to-earth, wide-eyed perspective of Midwesterners
• Every ad is based on finding the inherent drama in the product
• Idols: Themselves as regular people
• Example: W+K or Any “branding agency.”
David Ogilvy Agencies fall somewhere in between.
• Advertising is capitalism
• Focused on selling or else
• Benefit-Driven
• Classy over entertaining
• Believes humans are led by emotion but justify it with reason
• Every ad is based on a product benefit interestingly told
• Idolis: Themselves as the creatively rational ones.
• Example: Mekanism, Note: Most agencies think they are Ogilvy-like agencies. But they are rarer than you think
The Howard Gossage Agency
• Advertising is propaganda
• Focused on solving problems
• P.R-Driven
• Less advertising over more advertising
• Keep it simple. Make it exciting. Believes humans want to have a good time
• Every ad is based on a conversation
• Idol: As Rory Sutherland put it: Gossage is the Velvet Underground to David Ogilvy’s Beatles and Bill Bernbach’s Rolling Stones. Not a household name, but to the cognoscenti, a lot more inspirational and influential.”
• Example: Mischief @ No Fixed Address, Anomaly, The early days of Crispin Porter Bogusky, Generalists
None of these types of agencies are better than any other.
All of them serve an essential purpose for every brand.
But none of them can truly be all of them.
Happiness in this industry is knowing where you belong.
Happiness as a client is knowing which one you need.

Some agencies can be hybrids- falling into more than one category.The Next Wave tends to fall into a cross between the brand driven symbolic style of Leo Burnett style crossed with the Howard Gossage problem solving propaganda. We aim to help our clients find a voice, and use it efficiently to convey their magic mojo in the marketplace

One of the latest trends is clients looking for a “Digital agency” which is an absurd ask. There are no agencies doing paste up, or shooting ads on film. We’re all digital, what the client is thinking is a media targeting strategy that relies on programmatic ad buying and search engine marketing. That’s all well and fine, but, if your message isn’t working, no amount of digital wizardry is going to solve your problems.

Learn about the different types of agencies- and then find one you can build a good long term relationship with. That’s been the best kept secret in advertising since Steve Jobs met Lee Clow or Phil Knight met Dan Wieden and David Kennedy. It takes time for any good agency to learn your business and fully understand your customers.

The Next Wave on the A-List podcast

The Next Wave on the A-List podcast

How much do you know about your advertising agency and what makes them tick?

There are books about some of the best and biggest ad agencies in the world, and we try to read them and learn from them. Some of our favorites are out of print- and hard to come by:

The A list podcast Logo

Click on the logo to go to the podcast on Soundcloud

There are plenty more, but, these stood out. We’ve been in business now since 1988, and no one’s clamoring to buy a book about us - they read what they need on this site, and now, they can listen to “The A-List Podcast” where Tom Christmann of AdHouse NYC interviews our founder on his origin story and advice on getting into advertising- and how to pick the right agency.

the A-List podcast. Soundcloud Apple Podcasts

We’ve got lots of advice on this site on careers in advertising including tips on how to get a job in it,  how clients should select an agency, which are two of the things we discuss on the pod. But, the idea of working with people you like, with products and services you believe in goes a long way to solving the toughest marketing problems.

It’s a 53 minute listen that will give you more insight on The Next Wave and what makes us tick. But, maybe, it’s your first time listening to The A List, where there’s lots of good discussions about what makes good advertising- and how we get from idea to finished project.

Take a listen and let us know what you think.

And, because the link ended up on the cutting room floor- and not in the show notes- after you get done listening- you may want to look at this page: https://thenextwave.biz/alist/


How to be a great advertising client (or “10 commandments for creative excellence”)

BEFORE YOU WORK WITH AN ADVERTISING AGENCY, READ THE 10 COMMANDMENTS FOR CREATIVE EXCELLENCE [SO YOU DON’T BLOW IT AND END UP POINTING FINGERS]A friend gave me a copy of Dick Wasserman’s 1988 book “That’s our new ad campaign…?” and I started digging in. Wasserman approaches the book as an effort to help everyone, from the CEO to a student understand how to tell a good ad from a bad one- via a system.

Inherent in this story is a look at “how the sausage is made” and he is very clear that clients need to bring their A game to the table if they want great advertising. He cites a CEO who made a conscious effort to get better advertising.

Reuben Mark was the CEO of Colgate Palmolive- who made waves by hiring agency folks to run his marketing efforts and to manage their agencies. He was involved, but trusted his people to do the creative. He also realized that his agencies had to make money and actually raised their compensation level.

Here are Reuben Mark’s ten commandments for creative excellence, as listed in Ad Age:

  • Be the best client they have.
  • We must really care.
  • True partnership/mutual trust.
  • Ask for excellence.
  • Clear, honest direction.
  • Look for the big idea.
  • Streamline approval procedure.
  • Personal involvement of top management of client/agency.
  • Ensure agency profitability.
  • Be human.

The chairman of every corporation with an ad budget would do well to make these ten commandments his guide for dealing with his ad agencies.

~pg 26 of “That’s our new ad campaign…?” by Dick Wasserman

Much of this amounts to respect of the ad agency by the client- and an understanding that the big ideas won’t come if the foundation of the relationship isn’t solid. When you look at brands that consistently do great advertising, year in year out, you usually see a long term client/agency relationship. This has gotten harder and harder as we’ve come to believe that hiring a star “chief marketing officer” with an average tenure around 2 years, is a good way to manage marketing.

Typically, the best relationships are directly between the CEO of a company and the Chief Creative Officer of the agency. Look at the relationship between Steve Jobs of Apple and Lee Clow of TBWA\Chiat\Day, or Dan Wieden of W+K and Phil Knight of Nike. Those are the kinds of relationships that have generated some of the greatest ad campaigns and concepts of all time.

Clients who think their agency shouldn’t be bothered by being involved in something as mundane as an email blast or the design of a welcome packet- often miss the bigger picture of a clear brand voice. Jobs was fanatical about reviewing every single campaign, every package design because he knew  brand voice was critical.

When it comes to the establishing of the relationship, clear contract terms are to be assumed; what is the client getting for their retainer or contract rates. If you approach an agency asking to pay less, don’t expect more, no matter how big you are  in comparison to their other peers. A communication system, be it an online project management portal, or something like #Slack should be included in the working agreement. Not only should the means of communication be clear, but also responsibilities for responses as well.

But most importantly, if you want creative excellence, look for passion in the voices of your agency. Hire what Crispin Porter + Bogusky callsad people” well, they used to hire ad people.

Screen grab from Crispin Porter + Bogusky about page- "We are not ad people- But we are engineers, rule breakers, artists, scientists, filmmakers, aspiring guitarists, technologists, adventure junkies, anthropologists, and everything in between. All working together in a modern global network to make the most written about, talked about, and outrageously successful work in the world.

Which isn’t what they used to say in their Employee Handbook from 2004.

These are the weird and wonderful people who are at the core of any great agency.
Just because you work at an ad agency doesn’’t make you an ad person.

First, ad people really love ads. They like to talk about them. They like to read about them. They like to see them. And they love being involved in their creation. Second, ad people are deeply interested in the advertising industry.They know which agencies have what accounts, they know which people are doing great things at other agencies.

They know what the trends are and they follow accounts on the move. They are emotionally involved in what they do. If you’re an ad person, you have a career here. If you’re not an ad person, you have a job. Whichever one you are, it’s worth taking the time to learn about the ad industry. It’s like the old saying goes: the worst day in an ad agency beats the best day a bank ever had.

Passion is what really separates good agencies from the great ones. Just never mistake winning industry awards as passion for the craft. Awards are nice, but results should always be more important.

In what I consider the seminal book on advertising, “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This” by Luke Sullivan, he has a section where he he describes the disconnect between many clients CMO career path, vs those on the agency side- typically, one comes up through sales, and the other- comes up through- well, the creative consulting side of things. Really awesome clients ask their agency what books on advertising to read, and great agencies ask the client what they should read about their business. We have a booklist, but are really happy if our clients just read Whipple.

We have our own theory of what makes client/agency relationships create synergy: think of it more like a marriage, and not a contractual relationship. Choose your partner wisely, and realize, that gestation of a great campaign usually takes slightly longer than that of a baby. W+K wasn’t Nike’s first agency- who came up with “there is no finish line” but it was a few years after Nike moved the business to W+K when “Just do it” was introduced.

There is a learning period, and it’s not something that can be sped up. Clients who invest in teaching their agency about their business, usually get much better creative solutions. In a data driven world, this also means sharing not only web logs and analytics, but actual sales figures, customer data, and costs involved in making a sale. This is how targeting and marketing automation tools get optimized.

What may be the most overlooked aspect of the agency/client relationship however is what are the clients real objectives. Is it to get big and get bought, to maximize profits, to build the company, to be a leader in their field? While it may seem obvious, it’s not always clear to both parties and sometimes this is where the disconnect is. Steve Jobs was building “bicycles for our minds” when he launched Apple Computer.  Watch him explain how he came up with that expression, and then figure out what does success look like for your agency/client relationship?

Apple computer may have grown to be the most valuable company in the world, but, since Jobs has left the planet, Apple has also seemed to lose his idealism. Apple doesn’t seem to remember its roots of being a company that helped you evolve and move the human race forward and that’s too bad.

The final word of advice in being a great client, and getting the most out of your relationship is to hire people who believe in what you do. We won’t take vape stores or manufacturers as clients, just like we won’t take on tobacco companies. We’re also not interested in your micro or macro beer brew operation, your distillery or your gun store. It’s not because we don’t think you deserve great advertising, it’s just that we aren’t going to be passionate about working on those types of accounts.

If you found this helpful, please take a moment to add any advice you may have for being a great client. Thank you.


Hiring An Ad Agency: The R.F.P. Guide (for Governmental Organizations)

 Purchasing departments for school systems, city government, state government, federal government are used to buying tangible items or services that are easy to define. We need toilet paper is easy- how many rolls, how many sheets to a roll- price and done. Services are a little tougher- cleaning floors in a hospital has more variables, but still can be calculated in square feet, supplies and man hours.

Part of the problem in government purchasing, is that you are open to all bidders, whereas in the private sector, your agency search consultant can filter down your short list pretty quick. They do this based on their knowledge of the industry, the problems the client is facing and insight into client/agency cultures. They act more like a dating service than a purchasing department.

When it’s time to come up with a brilliant re-positioning of your school system, city, state or federal agency it isn’t something that can be accomplished better by more people, hours, or, even money. All the metrics that are usually used to evaluate the standard purchasing value proposition are out the window.

Hiring a creative firm is more like getting married and having kids than it is like buying a car. Even after divorcing your agency, there are still and always will be ties and connections to deal with. You can just sell the car and get a new one on the flip side.

When you hire an ad agency, you are buying the promise of hope, entering into a relationship that will either grow and blossom and be mutually beneficial, or it could end in a sloppy divorce or even devolve into something resembling a murder/suicide. What you are buying and what you’ll get largely depends on how well you know your institution, and how well the agency understands your problems and your markets. You are buying intuition and insight more than anything else. Marriages succeed when two people know each other’s faults and accept them, they grow, when they complement each other, they blossom when the synergy allows growth and builds value.

Before you hire an ad agency- educatate yourselfAll that said, it’s about mutual understanding, respect and realistic expectations.

If your organization has a bad reputation, delivers shoddy service, creates havoc for your users, is difficult to work with- the best advertising in the world won’t help. In fact, it may hurt.

If your organization is driven to do great things, and is focused on excellence, a bad agency can probably do the job and you’ll still be ok.

Sometimes an agency has to be an outside conscience for their client to tell your organization how to do it right. When Crispin Porter + Bogusky told Domino’s it’s time to admit your pizza blows, it wasn’t what Domino’s wanted to hear, but when the consumers were told that the company finally heard them- sales went up and so did Domino’s fortune. Do you think Domino’s liked hearing it? No. Are they glad they listened? Yep.

How did Domino’s know CP+B was the right agency for them to hire? Even after they told them their pizza sucked? They understood who they were marrying. CP+B was an industry darling that had taken other brands into uncomfortable territory and created value. In this case, past performance is an indication of future success. Yet even CP+B loses clients to other agencies. One clients great savior isn’t necessarily the answer for another.

Government agencies aren’t typically well stocked with marketers in their organization, or in their procurement offices. While there are metrics of increased sales or even customer satisfaction ratings that business can look at, your local schools aren’t going out of business if the logo sucks or the campaign for your levy fails. So, how do you construct a useful RFP instrument and process to select that isn’t based on dollars, hours, deliverables and other tangible measurements? How do you cut through the slick presentations and marketing jargon, so you are able to really compare responses to your RFP?

Start out with a real budget for your potential agency to work with.

While this sounds easy, many government accounting systems don’t fully count what they spend on marketing. Every mailing you send to homes- even if it’s to mail a water bill, or a report card is a potential marketing delivery tool. Every printed handout that students take home, even if it’s about school uniforms, has a chance to help build your brand. Are you accounting for all expenses and all potential opportunities? While you may think you know how much should be spent on billboards and TV spots and think you want numbers for reach and frequency, how do you account for likes and shares? Organic and paid? Have you determined the budget based on what you’ve always done? That should be a clear red flag.

Come out with a real budget number for the RFP- and ask the agency how they’d allocate the funds to maximize effectiveness. It should give you a clue of what media they are most comfortable with.

That’s a first test.

It doesn’t even have to be for your entire budget, sometimes just a smaller project is a good way to test the waters. Kind of like a first date.

Have goals and objectives- a creative brief.

What metric are you really interested in? Since it’s not “sales” or “profits” is there some action that you can index? What do you want to change? What is the desired result? Is it to enroll more people in your program, to better understand what resources you provide, to mobilize people to do something? Define the objective you want your new agency to solve. Keep it simple and short. Maybe it’s not comprehensive- maybe it’s just how to solve one part of your puzzle. This is about deciding who to hire- not to actually solve the problem. A creative brief is a document of constraints, aimed at focusing efforts to maximize results- your RFP is about evaluating resources for maximum result. Don’t ask for spec work, ask for examples of how they’ve done this before, or what they would do to solve your problem. Ask about processes, ask about how you’ll communicate, ask about implementation, just don’t ask for the campaign itself.

Provide a summary of what you’ve done in the past.

One of our favorite new client interviews began with the client walking in with a stack of his brands history, with packaging, logos, ads, and the story of the brand. While you may think everything someone needs to learn about your company is online, it’s probably not unless you are a fortune 100.

Instead of hoping the prospective agencies know your advertising, branding, history- have it in a neat package. It never hurts an organization to have its brand DNA distilled into a nice package (we like to call them brand books) to tell your potential customers your story.

Ask for timelines and budgets

Knowing how much something costs is great, knowing when to have the money available is another. Ideas that can’t be funded aren’t really ideas- they’re pipe dreams. Both organizations need to be aware of when money is needed- including payment terms. Much like newlyweds, costs of a house, car, honeymoon, baby all have to be put into the picture. Put both payment terms, and approval times into the document so there are clear and binding expectations.

Who are the players?

Both sides need to know the real lineup. Agency principals can be there at the pitch- but will never see the client again, and the client who is purchasing the work, may never have to work with the agency. Ask for the agencies lineup- and share yours. These are the people that will be working together. Have them involved in the process. The people who will work together, should be the ones involved in the review and the interview.

Constraints are your friend

It shouldn’t take 150 pages to explain a marketing plan. Most great marketing ideas fit on a cocktail napkin. Limit the rfp responses to the bare minimum. If you have specific questions, ask them in the RFP, not later in the interview. “How do you foresee the rebrand being implemented” and “Cite an example of a rebrand you’ve done” are better than “we want comprehensive marketing services.”

Interview, scenario, visit.

Once you’ve narrowed down the responses, interview the agencies that seem to best understand your issues. This is where your people who will work directly with their people ask each other questions. It should go both ways. The client should be asking about the proposal, the agency should be asking about the clients comfort level with the proposal. This is a date still- not the marriage.

Having a scenario prepared to ask the agency on how they’d handle it is a good way to see how they think on their feet. “What would you do if a student was stabbed on the playground during the school day by an outside attacker?”  Or, “our last conference wasn’t as well organized or attended as we’d like, what could you do to change that?”

Have a timeline to work with, but be flexible. 20 minutes to present, 40 minutes to answer questions might sound efficient, but, for a long-term relationship, speeddating might not be the best solution.

Lastly, visit each others work spaces. Learn about your future partners in their natural habitat. Sometimes, it’s even smart to hold the first interviews on neutral ground- just to make everyone feel at ease.

Keep lines of communication open throughout the process

If a bidder is out of the running, let them know. If the process is going to take longer than expected, let the bidders know- however, at this point the terms of the contract will change. Make sure you clearly communicate to all bidders what is happening.

Scoring the bids

Since this isn’t private enterprise, scoring is critical, and open to scrutiny.

If your objectives were clear, the budget set, and the examples asked for are absolute, scoring becomes easier. Weighting the scores is usually where things get complex. Assigning points for things like “sustainability” turns you into a bond-rating agency. The financial meltdown should have proven that these sorts of evaluations are rarely accurate.

You are really grading two things: the proposal, and the likelihood that there will be synergy. How you determine these things can’t be split up into 15 categories and scored. Fractions of points are a joke. Come up with a list of big picture questions and try to rank the agencies by each in order. Assign points by ranking. Rank no more than 5 agencies, and put them in order for each question- 5 best, 1 least.

  • Seemed to understand our objective and have realistic solutions
  • Has relevant experience with our target audience
  • Demonstrates the skills we need
  • Efficiency in delivering message
  • Competency of team- likeability
  • Past performance with other clients
  • Demonstrated strategic thinking
  • Potential value add
  • How do they manage client communications, track projects

Feel free to add your own. But, weighing the value of one area over another starts making it more complex. If anyone can’t put the five agencies into a ranking based on the criteria- the criteria may be the problem. If your team thinks there is a tie- then cull the field and start again.

The Pre-nup

Ownership of ideas isn’t as easy to define as ownership of the pet dog or a couch. There are questions about ownership of the work, of payment for media plans, and work outside of the original scope of work. Both sides may want an annulment, or it may come down to a nasty divorce when lawyers get involved.

Does the client have rights to the working files, the b-roll, the code- or just the finished project? Who licenses the fonts? The stock footage? Do those rights transfer? Does the agency get a guaranteed minimum engagement? Are there penalties for early withdrawl? Agencies often make considerable investment ramping up for a new client – what guarantees are there?

Also, don’t forget with the management of social accounts, who has access? Who owns them?

We’ve often seen questions about our ability to pay for media on behalf of clients, yet they have a reputation for not paying on time. What safeguards are in place to make sure the financials are in order? And, the same goes for approvals? Is the job charged a rush fee because of slow client approvals?

Spending time working the pre-nup details out before the award makes for a much better relationship.

The Award

Once you decide, communicate your decision to all of the bidders in a timely manner. Even better yet, offer some feedback on the responses, about what you loved, and what you felt was missing.

If you’ve done everything correctly above, it should be very easy to offer positive feedback. Remember, you may need to engage some of these folks in the future. Not every agency is necessarily the right tool for every project- but, you may find that who you hired is great at one thing, but not so good at others.

It takes time to put together a proposal, have the respect for the process and thank them.

The thing to remember

You aren’t buying a car. It’s a relationship. Often the best work doesn’t come right away. Sometimes what sounded great in the pitch- turns into a nightmare to sustain. When the US Army fell hook-line-and-sinker for “ARMY STRONG” on the strength of one spec spot, they had a hard time figuring out how to keep it going after. The Marine Corps on the other hand, has never had to explain, “the few, the proud, the Marines” – and it helps that Marine Corps dress blues win hands down in the fashion show.

Can you help me right now is great, but will this relationship grow is more important. Will the agency be your partner in growing and extending your brand, or will it just be there for the one trick pony? Expect there to be growing pains. Ask questions about how they collaborate- and communicate- a lot. That’s the key to a good hire, and it takes both sides to make it work.

Just like a marriage.

For further reference:

The 4A’s has ANA/4A’s Agency Selection Briefing Guidance.

The ANA/4A’s Guidelines for Agency Search outlines best practices for clients and agencies.

How to run an advertising agency review?

Business Week on “How to hire an ad agency

Keys to a successful agency review

If you’d like help on how to review your current materials and prepare it to send to agencies for a review, we can help. Feel free to contact us.

If you found this useful, please leave us a comment

How to not hire an imaginary ad agency

There are a lot of choices these days in picking an ad agency. Back in the pre-Macintosh days, an agency had to have a whole lot of moving parts to make it work. Sure, you could present your ideas on a napkin, over the three martini lunch back then, but, the process of crafting an actual ad required keyliners, typesetters, color separators- shooting a commercial often involved film, lights, sound studios. Now you can shoot a commercial on your cell phone, edit it there, upload it and run it. An Instagram post can be billed as an ad. The lure of the one-person agency, jack of all trades, digital magician is great. You could even have that person on staff! It could be your kid- at least if your company is privately held and your gross revenues are less than 5-10 million a year (and you’re ok with them staying there).

Real offices, a listing in the Yellow Pages, membership in the “Four A’s” were considered credibility builders when The Next Wave was founded. Now, we produce a more up to date directory of ad agencies in Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati than you can find anywhere else, including the dreadful “Book of Lists” published by the Business Journal network. We update it almost weekly. We leave the agencies that come and go- so people can find the wreckage (especially of the imaginary agencies that seem to pop up like flies- mostly, the one person, between jobs type, who thinks they are the next David Ogilvy- until they realize that doing the invite for their sisters wedding didn’t really impress anyone except the AAF Addy awards judges last year).

We do a lot of competitive analysis. You know like JC Penney follows what Kohl’s and Target do (or tries to at least). We look at these imaginary agencies and try to figure out who really is the next wave in advertising- and most of the time, we just shake our heads and hope no one gets hurt.

The first clue is almost always a focus on vision and mission statements. It will be prominently displayed front and center. I remember going to a Cincinnati Ad Club meeting where the presenter, a former new business guru for the Martin Agency, spent an hour comparing these pompous, long, statements of bullshit- and showcasing the similarities.

Here’s two (and we’re not citing them- to protect the guilty):

“The most effective branding goes deeper than just designing the active components of a marketing campaign; it requires building a relationship. Clients look to us for creative branding solutions because we don’t just design campaigns, we create engagement opportunities that build lifelong customers.”


What we do
Agency X™ (yes, trademarked- ooh.) is a think tank; a collection of brilliant minds, inspired souls, and sizzling creativity.

In this chaotic world of relentless change, it takes a tremendous amount of effort and insight for a brand to clearly articulate a meaningful message through all the noise and confusion of a global marketplace. As seasoned branding consultants, we believe the answer is to create a rigorous learning organization. An organization of life-long students fascinated by business, strategy, design, and branding… students fascinated by life.

From Fortune 500 companies to the frenzy of dot-com startups, we have the invaluable experience of working with and for some of the world’s most recognized and respected brands. In the some of the world’s most recognized and respected branding agencies. In the wake of this unfortunate economic apocalypse, we were… well, inspired, to take our collective experience, all our hopes and dreams, and begin our own branding company.

And you know what? We’re having the time of our lives!

It’s a collection of sizzle alright, on the personnel page, only the founder, an adjunct college instructor, bothered to update his LinkedIn account as actually working there. He includes people who still work at other places, including an “SEO expert” (who shares his last name and is probably his daughter) who is a bank teller, and even his wife- listed as a “Creative Director” is listed in Linkedin as working somewhere else. Just because Don Draper fabricated his backstory back in the make-believe version of Madison Avenue in the sixties, it’s a little harder to do it now.

It’s always been a problem to tell what was really done in an ad agency by the current staff at the current agency. So many startups are showing work that they did at other agencies, with other senior people handling the clients, the strategy, the concept. Sure, you “wrote the ad” but, the real question is who wrote the brief, who sold the client the strategy, and did it work?

Agencies are supposed to grow your business, improve the bottom line, help guide your strategic direction. “Sizzling creativity” is wonderful, but if it’s fueled by burning your budget on the wrong things, your life expectancy will decrease to the length of time that this agency will be around- usually until the next job offer with a steady pay check comes along.

We’ve watched the horrific impact of bad advertising advice, like the local salmon smokers who spent a ton of money on a very tame branding package, and advice to spend their Saturdays trying to peddle their lox at the local farmers market, instead of working to find distribution channels for super premium seafood, carefully smoked to perfection. Or even a client of ours, who was ready to sell his business the morning it was set to open, because he had hired his marketing consultant after signing a ridiculous lease at a local shopping mall, instead of finding a low rent private location and investing his money in advertising his new product (what worked for Asda, WalMart in the UK, isn’t the model for a small startup here).

We’re working on updating our site, because, well, we keep doing new things, have new stories to tell and the way we approach advertising now is different than we did 5 years ago, or even three. Of course, the first thing we do is study our competition- just like we do for our clients. We try to find the sweet spot, the positioning that clearly makes us different. As to new mission statements, or taglines- nope, we don’t need to change them, update them, add more to them, because after 25 years in the business, we’re still The Next Wave and we still know what’s really important and can say it succinctly.

We Create Lust • Evoke Trust. And our job is to make you more money than you pay us. And, no, we don’t have to meet you in a coffee shop- we have a real office that people come to everyday- even without appointments. It has our tools of our trade- computers, printers, video and photo gear, and most importantly, our library. Come visit.

The challenges of challenger brands

We were invited to a pitch today. The potential client has grown quickly and out grown the agency they had. This is always an unfortunate situation, but, it’s always better to refocus early, before things get totally out of wack.

In a fast growth market, there are certain places a brand wants to be: first, biggest, most well known. Ideally, all three. The problem comes when you’re none of the above and searching for an added edge to continue your growth. This pitch was a bit different, in that we weren’t given much time (a week) and we weren’t given a brief, it was more of a capabilities presentation. Of course, the first question coming out of the audience (it’s a franchise organization so there were a lot of bodies in the room) was have you done work for someone like us before? The old catch 22 question which is why the old industry adage of  “it’s better to be lucky than good” often comes to play in matching agencies to clients. Or, as they also say- it’s not what you know, but who you know.

In our background research we were finding that they are in a segment experiencing phenomenal growth. They’re on the map as a one to watch. The problem is, the number one player in their field, carved a niche away from the original number one by offering a very clear point of differentiation and then proceeded to own the niche like it’s the main event. The number two and three brands have been busy trying to out niche the leader and our potential client was trying to play leapfrog on the very same platform.


This is what challenger brands should never do. Don’t play follow the leader. Don’t assume that what works for the leader can be copied, duplicated or improved- need proof, how’s Barnes and Noble really doing vs Amazon in just the eBook reader market? Never mind the selling of books. If you are going to be a challenger brand, the most important thing that you can discover to build a strong brand DNA is your brands “unique selling proposition,” a concept developed by Rosser Reeves for the Ted Bates Agency in the fifties. Brands that find their USP find that their products and services are much easier to sell and have a conversation with their customers because there is no cloud of confusion surrounding their products. Apple is a great example of a challenger brand that still isn’t the biggest by market share, but has grown from near bankruptcy to the most valuable company in the world based on the USP of products that are beautiful and easy to use. Google has grown by proving itself useful. Neither were first to market, but both found that by sticking to simple messaging they could own a position that could be unique to them. You’d think that other computer companies would figure out that ease of use is important, but it hasn’t happened yet.

While McDonalds and Burger King and sometimes Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Jack in the Box and countless others fought to be “THE” burger chain, Subway grew to have the most outlets by focusing on a more approachable business model with easier entry for franchisees. Five Guys is making all the burger joints look twice at trying to be something for everyone, as they stick to the knitting of making a better burger. When McDonalds began, there were no chicken nuggets, salads or coffee bars, it was burgers, fries and milkshakes.

If you want to be a challenger brand, that’s fine. But, the truly great understand that to steal a phrase from designer/author Marty Neumeier,  in his book, “Zag“, “when others zig, zag.” He stresses the need for radical differentiation. It’s not just enough to talk about a strategy, you have to actually have one. Five Guys isn’t winning the burger wars because they have free peanuts, it’s because they hyper focused on a better burger and a simplified menu in a no-frills space.

Challenger brands that find their USP and convey it in a clear, differentiated voice, soon find themselves in a category all of their own. Find your USP, or find an agency that you can talk to about finding it, and you’ll be on your way to success.