Should ad agencies advertise themselves?

In this guest post, James Welch wonders whether ad agencies should make ads about themselves.

In 2006 I was on a project at Patts Y&R Melbourne. The now-famous Russel Howcroft had just been appointed as MD. The receptionist asked me what project I was working on. I explained that I was working for Russel, helping them articulate today’s stories for the agency and to find ways to package them up for prospective clients. The receptionist’s summary was succinct: “You’re advertising the advertising agency!”

I use that line nowadays when people ask me what I do for a living. But I have never actually advertised an advertising agency. Not in the traditional sense of paid advertising.

When it comes to the paid-owned-earned media debate, agencies just don’t pay for advertising space. Hell, we’re bad enough with our owned media (how many out-of-date websites are there and/or offices ‘soon to be renovated’). And few agencies are fabulous at sparking the conversation in earned media (what percentage of agencies goes beyond PR-ing breaking campaigns, updating a Linkedin profile and the occasional tweets?). But this piece isn’t about owned and earned media.

We’ve all thought about our own advertising and debated it. Here lies the debate. Should we advertise?

My immediate reaction is yes, let’s advertise. A resounding yes. What’s more, I have a brilliant idea for the ad. Creatives all cringe when ‘suits’ get ideas for ads. Especially when the suit says it’s brilliant. And so they should. Here’s what I created on my (t)rusty old mac:

James Welch's ad for InnoceanMy objection to running ads like this is that I’m putting the agency out there in a way that is unfair on the agency: all attitude and no substance. This ad is, therefore, a bit too ‘salesy’. As the age-old adage says:

“Everyone avoids a salesman; everyone loves a storyteller.”

Well, I discussed it with the team and we came up with a great idea – which we’ll fly with. It’s based around creating a story with substance: content. A proposition that will engage with, not just broadcast at people; start a conversation; tell a story.

After all that’s what WILL.I.AM, rapper and creative director at Intel, said recently on the US Adage website:

“Make conversations, not ads… If your ad, marketing plan or communication doesn’t increase, rebuild, enable or empower community, then don’t do it.”

As it happens, we’re doing just that. Only you probably won’t see our story for a while, unless you’re a prospective client. We’re going DM rather than above-the-line.

You see, when agencies do advertise themselves they just look like they’re clutching at straws. Ogilvy had a go earlier this year. And I’m not sure what the ads actually achieved. Their brand is well known, after all. Recency/top-of-mind awareness and that’s all, I’d guess.

Not exactly an integrated campaign and not sure it really did much for their brand or their business. But it didn’t denigrate the brand – well the long copy ad didn’t. Phew. I bet there was consternation on the inside – especially from the agency that in its old (Singo) guise refused any sort of self-promotion.

Last night, I asked a couple of ad gurus (Charlie Robertson of Red Spider and Adam Morgan of EatBigFish) if they knew of any great agency advertising and one told me he has “no recall of great ads by agencies for agencies” and the other said, “Chiat did a graceful ad when they lost Apple the first time round in the 80s. But I can’t think of a campaign that worked.”

What do you think about agencies advertising themselves? And I mean advertising, rather than self promotion. Have you seen any great advertising for ad agencies?

James Welch is the new business director at Innocean


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