By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

Imagine you’ve just received a notice from the IRS that they’re going to audit your most recent tax return. You’ve never been through an audit before, and because you’re in the habit of preparing your own tax returns, you decide it’s time to get some professional help.

You’ve never worked with a CPA before, so you turn to Google to help you find one. As you stare at the empty search bar, you consider which terms to enter. Would you type in “full-service accountant?” Perhaps “accountant with wide variety of experience?”

Not very likely. When you look for help from a professional services provider, you’re looking for a specific type of help. In this case, “taxes,” or “tax audit.” You aren’t looking for a “broad range of experience in accounting matters.”   You are in fact only looking for one thing: expertise in your specific area of concern.

As providers of professional services, agencies are subject to the same dynamics. No smart marketer ever hired an agency for it’s “wide range of clients.” A chain of electronics stores wants to know if a prospective agency has experience in the fast-paced world of retail. Banks are looking for knowledge of financial products and services. An agricultural supply company would first vet prospective agencies for experience selling to farmers.

My category, my market, my audience

Many agency veterans actually resist this idea, recalling the times clients have presumably hired them expressly because the agency wasn’t “steeped in the conventions of the category” and had the ability to provide “fresh, unfettered thinking.”  These  once-in-a-while  successes are not the rule, but the exception.  Besides, what else are you going to say when pitching in a category in which you have absolutely no experience?

Even though agencies with no relevant experience are sometimes finalists in a review, they very rarely win. Most often they are a wild card that is permitted to advance in the process because the client is curious to see what a “generalist” would do.  An agency that lacks expertise in the category or audience is certainly capable of provoking some reactions from an agency selection committee, but in the end marketers want not just unbridled creativity, but relevant solutions to marketing problems.

An agency arguing to a manufacturer of jet engines that “We’re not tainted by the aviation category” is like a law firm arguing that they’re not tainted by “An understanding of divorce law” to a client seeking an end to her marriage. Agencies forget that clients hire them not for what they do, but mostly for what they know.

The most important criteria when searching for a new agency

In today’s complex marketing environment, progressive marketers are looking for “best in class specialists.” In a recent Millward Brown study, this ranks number one in a list of criteria of why marketers look for a new agency. “Desire to focus on best-in-class specialists” is seen as more important than “Creative differences,” “Lack of chemistry,” “Poor service” and even “Agency’s lack of cost efficiency.” There is, in fact, nothing that successful marketers care more about than relevant experience.

This means that you’re working against the best interests of your firm when you put “Wide range of experience” on your website, because that’s clearly not what the best clients are buying. Agencies, ever fearful of following their own advice about strategic focus, use the words “full service” and “wide variety” so they can cast a wide net. But a wide net catches only small fish. It’s not the way to land a big barracuda.