Marketing the agency

As advertiser spending declines and new business opportunities dry up, some advertising agencies are turning to self-promotion to get them on the consideration lists of any clients who are thinking of shopping around.
So far these initiatives have consisted of predominantly public relations efforts or more targeted direct marketing packages to selected clients and categories. And their timing couldn't be better.

As advertiser spending declines and new business opportunities dry up, some advertising agencies are turning to self-promotion to get them on the consideration lists of any clients who are thinking of shopping around.

So far these initiatives have consisted of predominantly public relations efforts or more targeted direct marketing packages to selected clients and categories. And their timing couldn’t be better.

Historically there has been a flurry of agency switches during economic slowdowns. When the process of corporate spending assessment and accountability reaches marketing departments, those in charge see it as an opportunity to search for new and better ways to handle their advertising. As with most recent reviews, clients have already done their homework and have chosen a select list of candidates. Labatt Breweries and retailers Zellers and Winners are three Canadian advertisers who are in the midst of agency changes.

Rupert Brendon, president and CEO of the Institute of Communications & Advertising (formely the Institute of Canadian Advertising), is a firm proponent of agencies doing what they tell their clients to do – market their own brands – although not all agency heads agree with him.

‘There are some agencies who believe it’s all about personal contacts and face-to-face time – and that [self-promotion] doesn’t work,’ says Brendon.

‘When I ran DMB&B, I was a huge believer in [self-promotion efforts]. If you can’t do it for yourself, how the hell can you do it for somebody else? So I invested in a lot of media. I ran a campaign called ‘The Pocket Piece’ (a 10-year, small-space trade publication campaign featuring about 80 advertising how-to tips) and then later on invested in advertising that announced new wins and took special positions in annuals to display our work.

‘When you’ve got a change in agency management you see more [self-promotion] activity. You see, ‘what can I do to do things differently from my predecessor?’ and that may be one of the [reasons it is happening.]‘

One agency that is taking self-promotion very seriously is Palmer Jarvis DDB. The agency is formalizing its efforts by hiring an individual entirely devoted to marketing the agency.

The new post is expected to be filled early in the new year and will supplement the work of public relations veteran Rob MacLean, who has been the agency group’s VP of corporate communications and public relations for more than a year.

PJDDB is already highly visible because of its many account and award wins, but Tony Altilia, agency president and COO, says you can never afford to take your eye off the ball. Prospecting for new clients means taking time away from the business of current clients and that is something he doesn’t want to do.

While others may be reluctant to make this type of investment in this economic climate, Altilia says this is precisely the right time to do it.

‘Some people ask, ‘how can you afford to do this in this economy?’ I think, how can you afford not to do it? It’s been so quiet on the new business front and clients are so focused on their own businesses, that up until the Ammirati [and Labatt] thing we haven’t focused too much on how the agency is doing.’

Altilia adds, ‘It’s an exciting time to reinvent ourselves and ensure we’re adding value to our client’s businesses. Why would we find [Labatt's demand for more agency accountability] threatening? I don’t find it the least bit intimidating. I think it will make us better.’

Bob Shanks has made it very clear since taking over as president of Toronto’s Roche Macaulay & Partners this past May, that ‘good-mouthing’ the agency was one of his top priorities. While he has no plans to create a full-time marketing position, he is getting the good word out there with public relations rather than paid media.

‘It’s part of our ongoing quest for new business. We’re getting PR out of the work we’re doing. We’re doing that through traditional channels of public relations and we’re making sure the message is tied to the client message, which is tied to business results,’ says Shanks.

‘In the past, you read a lot about us from a creative sense. People are familiar with our creative credentials but not our strategic side. Our approach is less about ‘we’ve done this great spot’ and more ‘we’re working with this client, here is the campaign and its business results.”

Over at Publicis, Toronto, Andrew Bruce, executive VP and COO, says agency self promotion is often too transparently self-serving, but that third party endorsement is a more credible method. He suggests using a direct marketing lead generation campaign to handpicked clients rather than through mass media.

‘I would take the money and put it into packaging and some upfront thinking on the particular client you’re interested in. When new business has been as quiet as it is, you have to pinpoint the client you want and try to make connections with that client,’ says Bruce. ‘It’s not about spending, it’s about questioning what the best return on investment would be. I’m not sure the best investment for me would be a full page newspaper ad.’