How do you market a marketing agency?

Apologies for sounding toe-curlingly sycophantic, but I have to admit that Stephen Lepitak – the editor of this very publication – got it absolutely spot on when he remarked last month that a discussion around how agencies actually market themselves was long overdue.

Certainly, there’s a stark disparity across the industry when it comes to how agencies present themselves. Some do it pretty well, but for every one that does there’s a whole handful that seem to get it very, very wrong.

As one agency CMO put it recently: “Everyone is so busy doing work for their clients that they forget to do the same work for themselves.”

Said CMO was speaking on the now infamous Drum Bus stationed at Advertising Week, in a session entitled ‘How do you market a marketing agency?’

The session, conducted by Mr Lepitak, produced a lively debate on how to handle communications for your own company – analysing the highs, lows and sometimes very lows that all agency marketing teams encounter.

And if there was one theme that underlined the entire debate, it was about executive buy-in. Marketing should come from the top, and that person should have a firm hand on the tiller.

A groundbreaking observation? Certainly not. But it’s incredible how many agencies seem to forget it.

Why does it happen? That’s the million-dollar question, and one the panel – and many internal marketing departments – have spent so long desperate to explain.

Having spent some time on both sides of the fence (four years at Campaign magazine, and three and a half at Engine and Partners Andrews Aldridge), I’ve got a couple of theories.

The first is that for some unknown reason, agencies neglect treating their brand as they would a client. They lose all perspective. These agencies have no problem fighting for better work when it comes to the brands they work on, but don’t realise that the sad fact is that everything they produce isn’t groundbreaking front-page news. And nothing winds up a journalist more than being called up when on a deadline to be told about a new banner ad that’s been created for a retailer no one’s ever heard of.

A lot of it might come down to ego. Which brings me on to my next point. I thought the panel at Advertising Week made an interesting point when they discussed the quest for ‘Ruthless Oversimplification’. When you can do your own marketing and don’t have a client to answer to, it can be very easy to overcomplicate things. To try to create the content you’ve always wanted to create, rather than the content that’s right for your agency. You get a bunch of brilliant thinkers in a room, and with no one prepared to rein them in, you produce a bunch of agency propositions that few people outside of that room will understand or care about.

Mind you, I suppose that approach is better than going the other way – which we’ve also all seen far too often. And that’s when agencies spend so little time thinking about their own positioning and proposition that no one has any clue what the message is. Instead it’s left to a couple of time-poor new business types to field a few phone calls from the trade press and offer up nothing much in return. Yet these agencies still feel victimized when those same journalists lose interest in them – after all, it’s not as if the industry is full of businesses all muscling for face-time, right?

Your agency proposition needs to be defined, and it absolutely needs to be intrinsically linked to your core business objectives. And that can only come from the very top.

To finish, let’s turn to an oft-overused phrase at events like Advertising Week. The industry landscape has changed dramatically. But not just on the agency side of things, with the trade press too. Some titles have fundamentally shifted their focus. Others have disappeared from view altogether. And as one panelist remarked, a handful, like The Drum, have come from relative obscurity to reshape the sector once more.

This means a lot of things. It means that ‘pitch gossip’ might not be top of everyone’s agenda. It means that relationships need to be built in new and more interesting ways. It means that your weekly phone call has turned into an always-on dialogue that requires the same agility and level of service that you aim to provide for your clients.

But the bottom line is that it means your marketing plan of attack can no longer mean leaking a couple of sexy news stories to your assigned trade journalists during a quarterly lunch at The Ivy. If it can do, then great, but you suspect most journalists either don’t have time, the inclination or indeed the need for that. They might instead want thought leadership pieces, new insights into specific sectors, better access, better content, better perspective…the list goes on.

And if harnessing all that is not driven from the top, then you’re facing a remarkably tough battle.

Matt Williams is head of content at Partners Andrews Aldridge