You're Not in the Components Business

By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

When you shop for a car, you’re looking for an “outcome”, not a set of components that comprise an automobile.  Imagine visiting your dream car’s website and finding in place of a compelling description of the car and its main benefits, an exhaustive list of features.  Or worse, a list of the components that make up the car – the hood, trunk, wheels, doors, motor, suspension, drive train, cooling system, lighting system, gauges, sensors, ignition system, starting system, switches (you get the idea).

A pretty ineffective way to sell a car, right?  Remarkably, this is how the majority of agencies attempt to sell their own brand.  Instead of selling the “end” of what they do, they sell the “means.”  Instead of the benefit, they sell the features.

Do a validation check

Incredulous?  Go to and pick five agencies at random.  It’s very likely that four of the five will, either on their home page or one click away, feature a list of the “components” of their firm, as in:

“The Maple Group offers a complete range of creative services including marketing strategy, branding, graphic design, copywriting, media management, public relations, social media, mobile marketing, online advertising, search engine optimization, and web design.”  (Quoted from a real agency; name changed to protect the innocent.)

If you sell components, you’re in the component business.  Jeep doesn’t sell ball bearings and steering columns; they sell the ability to scale rugged mountains.

Not interesting, and certainly not differentiating

Besides being a fundamental marketing mistake (remember “Sell the sizzle instead of the steak?”) listing your “components” or services does absolutely nothing to differentiate your firm from others.

Here’s a useful internal exercise to determine if what you put on a list of services is really worth listing.  Precede the name of the service with “Unlike other agencies,” as in:

Unlike other agencies

  • we’re full service
  • we’re integrated
  • we have a wide range of experience

And to list things like “copywriting” or “graphic design” is kind of like saying you also have electricity and running water.  Aren’t things like writing and design assumed to be part of what an advertising agency does?  Don’t waste your prospects’ time talking about the things that are the price of entry in our business.

Making a strategic commitment

So why do agencies persist in this kind of marketing?  In my opinion, it really boils down to lack of imagination about their own brand, coupled with a lack of effort.  Listing the “features” of a business is easy (which is why most inexperienced marketers default to this approach).  Carefully considering the end benefit of what you do is difficult – for two reasons:

  1. First, because understanding and defining your core competency requires a lot of creative thought.
  2. Second, because it requires you to make what business strategist Michael Raynor calls a “strategic commitment.”

Years of research by Raynor, Ignition and others shows that firms that avoid making strategic commitments may survive but they do not prosper.

Do you want to just survive or do you want to prosper?  Optimal success comes from understanding the ultimate benefit of what you do, articulating it in a compelling way, and being willing to commit to it as a business strategy.

If you’re an advertising agency that’s good at what you do, you’re most certainly not in the components business.  You’re in the transformation business.  And it’s the best job in the entire business world.