Agencies Offering Too Many Side Dishes With The Meal

I recently came across a firm that claims supreme expertise in brand strategy, content, graphic design, web development, SEO, advertising, public relations, video and business operations.

Oh really. Is that all?

Some web development firms say they are also experts in SEO. Fair enough. But oh, by the way, they also do content and graphic design and strategy too.

My, where do you ever find the time to be absolutely brilliant in these five different areas at once?

I believe many of these folks do have genuine talent. In one thing. Maybe two.

The rest of the items they list? I don’t think they’re necessarily bad in those areas. Just not as good as the core one or two. And that’s where the problem starts.

Let me ask you: If you go into surgery to have your appendix removed, would you like to have a doctor who can technically perform the surgery because he watched someone do it a few times and it’s not a procedure he’s done very often or a doctor who has done that surgery 2000 times before?

Personally, I’m going with the expert over the guy who can “do that too.”

Every time ad agencies, PR firms, marketing firms, web development shops and more speak about all those extra side dishes they bring to the table, they’re representing an area that they know they’re not as strong in but Heaven forbid that they say it is something they can’t do. Or can’t do as well as what they’re very good at.

Herein lies the issue. It’s not about what you CAN do. It’s about what you straight up ROCK in. And if you’re making a laundry list, I’m skeptical by the time you get to Item #3 and calling BS by Item #4.

People who do this are not being honest with themselves about their true strengths. I suspect that for several of them, it’s a money grab. Even worse, they’re not being honest with clients about what they’re fantastic in and what they don’t do as well.

Trying to say you “do it all” isn’t good branding. It’s some jack-of-all-trades talk that stands for nothing.

I just don’t believe that people can be that awesome in 17 different things. If we want to perfect our craft, we can be better and better at one or two things.

Let’s think back hundreds of years ago. You had villages where there was a tailor, a butcher, a baker, etc. One shop had one specialty. If you had an issue, you knew which shop to go to. It was that simple. I don’t ever recall hearing of Ye Olde We Have Everything Shoppe.

“We’re a marketing agency.”
People in our industry say it so often. But what is that, really? Could that really be any more bland and broad? What meaning does it have without further qualification? A marketing agency for what? For who? Anybody with a pulse and dollar?

“We’re a digital marketing agency.”
Ah. That’s much clearer since practically any business that would like to be relevant to other humans should be operating in the digital space in some capacity anyway. So again, you work with anybody. Which is not good.

“We provide everything from branding to web design to startup incubation to storefront development for startups and long-standing companies.”
So you do a lot of things for a lot of people. Congratulations. I still have no idea what you’re actually the best at. Just PICK ONE OR TWO and plant your flag in the ground and say, “Hell yes, we are the best at this and we have the goods to prove it. It is what we live and breathe. And if you need something outside of that scope, we will refer you to someone we like and trust for that.”

I didn’t ask your agency what you provide. I’m asking you what you’re the best at. And you’re not the best at all of those things. You couldn’t possibly be.

Those 8-10 extra side dishes you listed are distracting people from the main course of what they came for.

By the way, here’s another residual effect you may not have considered on the way to filling your capabilities listing with 12 commas: The more you get into the laundry list of things you can do, the fewer Strategic Partners you may be able to have. So rather than bring in someone whose business is built around that area 24/7, you limit your opportunity to have a partner for new business referrals by keeping it yourself and getting by (and thereby limiting the client too).

I have 2 things I believe I do very, very well: Content Development and Brand Strategy.

Within those two core competencies, I have the ability to use all of the writing, creative direction and strategic skills I need. Plus, those two areas are always evolving, with new tools and trends to learn about. I have the passion for those as it’s what I love most and it keeps me busy. I’ve known those two things like the back of my hand for years and I can look anybody in the eye and have the utmost confidence in delivery of those services. What else is there?

I would encourage you to think this way: If it’s what you are passionate about, there is a demand for it and it’s a constantly shifting niche that challenges you to stay abreast of its developments…how many more areas like that one do you need?

If the theory is that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert in one thing and we use a standard work week, it would take roughly 5 years to be an expert in ONE area. But you don’t stop learning when you get to Year 5, because otherwise you’d go stale, right? So you have to invest time on top of those 5 years to maintain your expertise. You never stop.

“OK, but what if we have a bunch of specialists for different things under one roof? Then we can say we’re really good in all those things then, right?”


For the sake of argument, let’s say you’ve assembled an All-Star team of talent. One, it’s probably not going to last for very long because if those people are so incredible, they’re going to move on. Maybe due to ego, leadership opportunity, pay, outside factors, etc. Two, it’s highly unlikely that they’re all equally magnificent. So if you cater to speaking to the greatness of all those people, you still can’t tell me the one or two things that your agency does best because apparently you’re just the bees knees in everything. And once again, that’s harder to remember.

The only way that’s practical is to go narrow and deep. Not wide and shallow.

Wait a minute. Doesn’t this also apply to a lot of businesses that try to be all things to everyone?

Yes. It absolutely does.

Generalists are losing out there. Partially because they’re getting lost in the crowd of do-it-alls who stand for nothing in particular. Aim to join the ranks of the specialists. It’s more fun, more distinguishable and more genuine. And if you’re truly exceptional, it’s more than enough.

You’re Ignoring This Client The Most.

There’s a popular excuse that many agencies make for themselves when it comes to developing their own brand that has to do with “the cobbler’s shoes” and basically how we’re all like a shoemaker who makes shoes for every customer except his own children. I should know. I used to make this excuse myself. But with a semi-embarrassed grin that was actually more of a badge of courage, gosh darn it, you’ve got to service those clients that pay the bills!

I’d keep making this excuse over and over as if someone would take pity on me, “Wow, it’s so admirable that he services all those clients but doesn’t do anything for himself.”

Yeah. That pity party’s not coming.

That’s when I realized: You ARE a client that helps pay the bill.

Think about it. What helps register a powerful impression that in turn helps generate leads? Your business card. Your website. Your blog. Your social networking. Your “real world” networking. Your own professional development. These elements and more help your agency’s brand grow. So why would you kick all that to the bottom of the list every time?

We have to stop viewing ourselves as the last priority because we technically speaking don’t pay the bills via our own brand. That’s a huge mistake.

View your own brand as a client. 

This is the only way an agency can treat its own brand with any measure of respect. If you see your own agency’s brand development as another client among your roster, you will make it more of a priority. If you see it as something you should get around to doing, it won’t go anywhere.

There will never be a good time to work on your own stuff. Never.

There may be peaks and valleys in the workflow, but something else will come up. And then your own stuff will be pushed again. The new rendition of the website, a brochure, videos, whatever is part of your self-promotional strategy. Easy to do? Oh no. Not by a longshot, trust me. Right now, in fact, I’m in the process of updating my own company website. Is that pulling me away from other client work? No. I’m not suggesting you ignore them for one second. You bet that makes for an interesting juggling act when it comes to incorporating agency self-promotion. Still, there’s something about adding your own brand to the list of other client brands on the traffic list that keeps it front and center.

I do know that when you add a new client, you make time for that new client, don’t you? You add it to the roster, give it the attention it deserves, meet with key people, strategize a plan of attack, execute for them. You find a way to make it work. So the whole “We don’t have enough time” song and dance is covering up for the fact that you don’t see yourself as a high priority.

Sure, this integration is a work in progress. I get that. But the key word is progress. Kicking your own brand to the bottom time after time isn’t progress. It’s treating your own client – one of your most satisfying, rewarding clients – like an afterthought.

Would you treat any other client with so much potential as an afterthought? I seriously doubt it. Then think about how you’re going to service the client within so much better on a regular basis.

A thought to help you begin? Don’t spew out a bunch of tactics that you’re going to start doing tomorrow. I don’t recommend that for my own clients (Facebook! Twitter! LinkedIn! And more!). Instead, consider this change in mindset as your very first step. Because if you don’t truly view yourself as a client, your effort will go nowhere fast.

Once your head is in the right direction, your strategy and ultimately, your tactics can follow.

Congratulations on your new client.

Jack White, Quentin Tarantino and Equivalency Branding


Jeff Segal, Message Therapist

Today’s guest post is brought to us by Jeff Segal, Content Manager of Kauzu, a social venture that’s changing the way jobseekers and employers connect. An experienced marketing professional and disciplined writer with creative flair, Jeff also consults for businesses under the moniker of “Message Therapist.”

Something occurred to me recently when I heard Jack White’s cover of “I’m Shakin’” on WXRT: Jack White is the Quentin Tarantino of rock.

They’re both obsessive fans who push well-worn genres beyond their traditional boundaries—low-budget crime, martial arts and western flicks for Tarantino; blues, rockabilly and R&B for White. They’re both unapologetically indulgent—Tarantino’s movies are rarely short of three hours, and White’s guitar solos can singe the hair from your ears—but find forgiveness with fans and critics alike. Both Tarantino’s movies and White’s music can feel like parody and homage at the same time.

Golly, Jeff, that’s some fascinating media criticism. What does it have to do with branding?

Say you’d never heard of White but you’d seen most of Tarantino’s movies. If I told you, “Jack White is the Quentin Tarantino of rock,” you’d have a pretty good idea what to expect from his music.

If you’d never heard of Jimmie Johnson, but I told you he was the Tiger Woods of stock car racing, you’d probably guess Johnson was the favorite to win every race and championship—even though Woods himself hasn’t won much of anything in years.

If I told you Sub Zero was the Ferrari of refrigerators, you’d probably guess it would be beautiful, high-performance, and staggeringly expensive.

If I told you Mr. Lee was the McDonald’s of China, you’d probably expect to see Mr. Lee outlets selling fast food on every street corner in Beijing.

You get the point. The human brain has a hard time understanding new concepts, but less trouble associating a new entity with a known entity. If you’re marketing a new concept, try to describe it as the equivalent of a known entity—in other words, a recognized brand—and you’ll get the idea across faster. It’s a branding shortcut.

Let’s call it Equivalency Branding.

When Kauzu introduced the employers’ portal to its hyperlocal, mobile job search tool, we had a hard time summarizing its benefits—until we called it “The Help-Wanted Sign for the 21st Century.” Then employers understood: it attracted jobseekers who were already in the area, with the added reach, mobility and analytics of a modern web platform.

The founder of a Chicago startup with an innovative online video editing platform sometimes describes it as “Shutterfly for video.”

Promoting a legal environment that helps Chicago startups pursue business models with a positive social impact, a successful local entrepreneur says she wants to “make Chicago the Delaware of social enterprise.”

Equivalency Branding doesn’t work in every situation, but it’s surprisingly adaptable with a little creativity.

Say you’re an independent operator in a field dominated by a massive competitor called Megajumbo. Here’s how you might leverage the well-recognized Megajumbo brand to position your own:

  • By niche market—“the Megajumbo for medical office management.”
  • By locale—“the Megajumbo of River North.”
  • By specialty—“the Megajumbo of custom-designed micro-widgets.”
  • Or by competitive advantage—“like Megajumbo with better customer service.”

You might not want to use Equivalency Branding for your official marketing materials—for one thing, Megajumbo’s lawyers might not appreciate it. But it can be a great way to introduce yourself in a small group, networking or sales situation.

Hey, and if it catches on, I’ll be the Steve Jobs of Equivalency Branding.

Can we kill the “traditional” or “digital” agency labels already?

Agencies of the planet – just so you know, your label as “traditional” or “digital” or “social media” does not give you an inherent advantage of being able to relate better to any client, anywhere, at any time. Ever. It’s a label. Nothing more. And in the current state of the world, it’s an increasingly irrelevant one.

Most people are absorbing traditional media and digital media at once. I think we can agree that a whole lot of people use the Internet and a significant portion of the population is using social media. The fact you choose to concentrate on one of those is perfectly fine and good. Really. But to suggest that the fact that you specialize in those areas in and by itself means you are best at it is blowing smoke up a prospect’s rear end.

I’m talking to you too, specialists in certain types of marketing.

It’s great that you specialize in real estate advertising, for example. But you could still suck at it. Your creative could suck, your client service could suck, your strategy could suck, your media choices could suck and your ability to adapt to digital could suck. Or you could be awesome at all those areas and then some.

Either way, please don’t suggest that the fact you specialize alone makes you so much better than others. It doesn’t – until you prove it correct by making your case with your portfolio, your experience, your client feedback, your results, etc.

It’s shocking to me that anyone would want to stand on a pedestal without telling that story. “We’ve been in _____ marketing for X years so we’re uniquely equipped to understand your business.” Nice try. But I’m not convinced yet and nobody else should be either. Show me more. Tell me more. Best of all, show and tell me how all of your collective knowledge will benefit the challenge in front of me right now at this moment.

The agencies that connect the dots in this way for their prospects are the ones that win. The ones that think their labels alone will go a long way toward closing the deal?

I label that as lazy.

What do you call your agency in terms of what it does? And do your clients understand it? And how much do you rely on that label? Share. 

We’ll Always Love Movies. But Will We Love Movie Theaters?

Can luxury and tech upgrades rescue movie theater brands from oblivion?

On the afternoon before the Oscars, I was sitting in the AMC River East Theater on Illinois St. wondering if I was sitting in what was about to be a relic.

After all, my wife and I had just paid about $22 for two tickets before popcorn and drinks. With a small bag and shareable Coke, we were looking at close to $30. I could only imagine what the expenses would be for a family of 4 in an economy like this.

In that context, the brand of the traditional movie theater, the status quo, is no longer a practical option. There is only one way to go – up. As in a very upgraded luxury experience and in turn, luxury brand.

There was a time not so long ago that movie theaters with all the bells and whistles were considered above and beyond the standard. Loveseats. Restaurants in the same theater complex. Valet parking. Gourmet food delivered to your seat by waiter. Beer and wine selections. The ability to actually choose your seat by touch screen. Now, I believe the era has shifted to where, if movie theaters are to survive at all, they have to live by the mantra:

Go Luxury or Die.

The above items will not be “nice-to-haves” but “must-haves” in order for theaters to be a justifiable expense. The notion of Premier seating will go away in favor of all seating being that way. The price of admission in this category is going to be built on who can be the most supremely innovative and entertaining before, during and after the movie.

Remember, beyond economical challenges, people have technological advantages they didn’t have before. They can build their basements into Man Caves with deluxe speaker systems and a 50″ LED TV so that the picture and sound quality is amazing. When you have that kind of setup, who cares if they don’t see “Moneyball” in the first week it’s released when they can wait a few months to get it on Pay-Per-View for a lot less? And they can watch it in the privacy of their own home rather than deal with the jerkwad kicking their seats and talking loudly behind them.

This is why shifting downward as some theaters have, intentional or not, is not really a strong option. Paying a buck to see a movie long out of the theaters is cute once in a while at best and not sustainable. If you’re going to spend 2 hours out of your life watching something, not completely sure if that something is going to be any good, you at least want everything else to be pleasurable. Not sticky floors, cramped seating and a general experience that makes you want to shower afterwards.

It seems almost sad when you think about it. The Drive-In was a big part of my moviegoing experience growing up, but those are few and far between now. Will we be referring to movie theaters overall in the same way as technology innovates upon what is already a movie-quality experience at home? Perhaps. But to me, the way  for AMC and other chains to survive and grow their brands further is to create what people can’t get at home.

That’s why I’m very curious to see how Florida-based Muvico will further expand.  Five years ago, the chain of luxury theaters opened one of its first locations outside of the Sunshine State with an 18-screen location in Rosemont, complete with a full-service bar and restaurant. Having lived in Florida for a number of years, I can say the Muvico experience at the Premier level was definitely one that made me feel that it was money well spent. Why? Mainly because it has all the luxury aspects I mentioned above built-in.

So often, the assumed place to go for brand categories in a state of flux is to go downward by discounting. You’d probably assume the case here too given how people have little to no extra spending money for leisure. But discounting or even the status quo isn’t the long-term answer for theater chains. It’s about going all out to give people noteworthy things to write about and share across social media channels like Yelp. Sure, some will still consider these features overpriced. But isn’t the status quo of theaters without them overpriced anyway? If we’re going to spend more than we wanted to, shouldn’t we get more out of it?

Hoping Hollywood to upgrade its content to provide us better quality movies for the buck rather than churning out more sequels isn’t the answer. If we keep shelling out money to see Transformers 17, they’ll keep making them. No, the answer lies in hoping theaters do the upgrades.

The bar needs to be raised to the highest standard of where the theater experience is re-imagined, with the brand that wins realizing luxury and technology is the best ticket to success they can buy at this point.

The “Word of Mouth” Trap

Let’s get this out of the way: Positive word of mouth is terrific. I can think of nothing more powerful than an instance where one reliable source tells another person how great a product or service is. It’s instant credibility for your brand.

Unfortunately, there are people who don’t know how to make word of mouth all that it could be. Word of mouth can build business but it can also build complacency in people that benefit from it because those same people believe they don’t need to do anything else or that everything they’re doing currently is just fine. But in time, that kind of philosophy can result in decreased market share or worse.

Still, maybe you don’t see the big deal. All is right with your world. Good things are being said about you, customers seem to be consistent…so who needs anything else when word of mouth is pulling in people for you and the numbers are up?

Well, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you’d rather have more money than less of it. Which is why I offer forth this little scenario about two companies for you.

Company A has 200 customers. Company A provides great service and a great product but does nothing to encourage its customers to put in a good word about Company A to someone else, like a friend or family member. Still, let’s say that every single customer tells 1 other person about how great Company A is. Those people become customers too.

Company A’s year-end total: 400 customers.

Company B has 200 customers as well. They provide great service and a great product. But they implement a referral program that rewards its customers for referring three friends to become qualified customers – Company B offers a pretty good-sized prize for doing so, but then, the return on investment in getting three new customers for every one is well worth it. PLUS for every successful referral, the customer gets a smaller, intermediate prize. PLUS Company B’s program allows each successful referral to count as one entry into a grand prize drawing, which means the more referrals you make, the better your chances to win.

Company B’s year-end total: 600 customers (at least).

I’d say the difference between doubling your customer base and tripling it can be mighty big, wouldn’t you? Everybody’s company is different, but my point is that while both companies shown here use word of mouth, one chose to cultivate its customer relationships off of that word of mouth with far better results than the one that stuck to the status quo and did nothing.

And by the way, the referral program idea is only one potential way of building on what you have.

Remember, word of mouth is a foundation, not the end result. It’s a springboard for even better results to occur because what you have is a happy customer base – however, just because that’s something that many other businesses would be jealous of doesn’t mean you should sit still.

Specifically, think about two things:

1) Where does your audience interact with your brand?

2) What will your reward for making a successful referral be when you get in front of them?

A better reward does not have to equal more money either. It can be a discount off of one of your products or services (perhaps a discount off of a new product or service you’d like to introduce?).

Word of mouth gives you the opportunity to be proactive and make that goodwill work for you even further. Otherwise, there’s only going to be so many words about you passing through so many mouths.

Will Movement Make Banks Remember, Remember the Fifth of November?

Perhaps this isn't just the stuff of movies after all.

Smaller institutions may leverage outrage behind “Occupy Wall Street” and “Bank Transfer Day” to their advantage if they know how to act instead of analyze.

You’d like to think they saw this coming. You’d like to think they wouldn’t be surprised. And at the end of the day, I’d expect the biggest banks in America, including Chicago’s, to still be standing tall. Yet the movement known as “Bank Transfer Day” is gaining momentum and it’s important for all of us to note the new speed with how audiences mobilize, no matter where we stand on the issues. For marketers of financial products and those of us who advise them, it represents an opportunity to listen to audiences and pause before considering what to do in the name of getting more money from customers without giving them something in return.

Why? Because of this writing, one person is having an impact on what 25,978 people may do toward their bank on November 5th. And that’s just today. What will that number be by November 5th?

Organized by Kristen Christian, Bank Transfer Day is imploring people to move their funds from major banking institutions to non-profit credit unions on or by November 5th. The point of doing so is to send a message to the largest banks that there are consequences for unethical business practices. Christian isn’t trying to install anarchy or any more economic instability than what’s already in place.

Rather, as she told the Village Voice and KTLA Los Angeles:

“It’s not about people taking their money and burying it under their mattress. It’s shifting the money to a company people respect the practices of. If you don’t like Wal-Mart’s practices, shop at a local grocery store instead.” 

Christian is a 27-year-old who has banked at Bank of America, both personally and professionally. But she found her breaking point when B of A charged bank fee after bank fee. When she called into the bank because the site was down, she was charged two dollars. When she took her mother to brunch, her mother wound up paying for it because Christian’s account was frozen for three days due to suspicious activity – without any communication from B of A.

Many people who bank with institutions like this have a similar customer service story to tell. The more of them there are, the easier it is for groups to mobilize.

Is there a lesson for smaller banks and others in the financial industry in positioning themselves in this “recovering” economy? Absolutely.

While credit unions are the benefactor in this case, there’s no reason why others, such as community banks, can’t also benefit as long as they don’t act oblivious to current events and remember a few key points in their positioning/re-positioning:

If you raise a fee, there could be consequences beyond a few angry letters and posts online. What Occupy Wall Street and now Bank Transfer Day are showing institutions of all sizes is that there is a very real emotional limit to bank fees.

On the basic level, there is anger and frustration, where people throw their hands up in the air and say, “This is ridiculous and stupid. But what are you going to do?” Then they ask each other what they want for dinner.

Then there’s another layer where you’re ticked off enough to withdraw your account in favor of another institution.

Well, this is actually the point beyond that. 

What we’re witnessing is a new point where people are withdrawing accounts and organizing in order to bring like-minded people with them to send a clear message. And I don’t believe it’s going to end on November 5th either.

Regardless of politics, people are making a grave mistake by marginalizing these types of movements (right and left, mind you), because in a world where it’s not about size of crowd but how well the message is distributed through channels such as social media, a great deal of impact can be made one way or another on a brand. True, the world won’t pay as much attention to a couple people with signs. But I think we can all agree Occupy Wall Street has been greater than that. 25,978 people who sign up for Bank Transfer Day via its Facebook Page is greater than that. The story has the potential to spread far beyond the physical location (if we learned nothing from the uprisings in Egypt).

To ignore that sentiment without addressing it is shockingly short-sighted, if not arrogant. It is at this moment that smaller financial marketers at the community level (banks, financial advisors) should look at themselves and say:

“We’ve got an opportunity here to be portrayed in a light apart from our much larger colleagues. They’re doing us a favor, really. Whereas we might’ve been lumped in with them at one point as ‘Financial Institutions,’ they’re the ones getting hammered in the press for what they’re doing wrong. They’re fragmenting our industry in a good way and we should take advantage of the moment to tell our own story, how different we are from them. We need to show that when people trust us with their money, we’re not going to gouge them to death with ticky-tack monthly fees, nor are we going to do things to do their account without telling them.”

I wonder how many community banks are having that conversation within their walls. Because they should. Now. People are literally taking to the streets and to the web in anger directed primarily at your competitors. And you won’t address that raw emotion because you want to stay above the fray? Because you won’t talk directly about what’s going on in a financial industry where trust is being eroded and what you want to do to fix it? Mistake. Huge mistake. Lost opportunity.

In fact, the issue doesn’t even have to be about how large or small the bank is but rather what it believes in opposition to its counterparts getting hammered in the media and conveying that differentiation clearly.

It’s possible some people who said “I’m attending” Bank Transfer Day won’t ultimately transfer funds from one bank to another. But the larger picture here is that they want to show solidarity and identification with a group against large bank brands. That matters.

It’s also possible that some people will say, “It doesn’t matter because it’s not like these banks are going to be hurting in their bottom line from this. Get real.”

That’s probably true. But I’ll go out on a limb and say any company that takes a “who cares what they think” attitude toward their own customers as long as their numbers are good won’t be doing wonders for their long-term brand perception.

What are your thoughts? Do movements like Occupy Wall Street and Bank Transfer Day change your feeling toward your financial institution? Or does it have little effect on how you view it? If you’re in the industry and feel comfortable commenting, what are your thoughts as well?