Media Forum: Can agencies self-promote?

Are media agencies capable of marketing themselves, Alasdair Reid asks.

We admit it. We have, in the past, on several occasions, been scathing about the efforts of media agencies when it comes to self-promotion.

But even so, we admit we had to watch through our fingers as PHD was given a collective shoeing by the social media community for its "we are the future" film.

The agency made a bad situation worse, some say, by reacting slowly to negative comments posted on the likes of YouTube, then removing critical (but not offensive) comments. And its efforts to regain control (via phdworldwide.posterous.com/we-are-the-future) were, at best, unconvincing.

PHD sources argue that there are extenuating circumstances here - notably, that the project wasn't initially intended as a public self-promotional exercise and that it evolved in a somewhat haphazard fashion on to a wider stage.

Surely the bottom line, though, is that the idea was never as good as some in the agency thought it was. And, in that respect, you could argue that PHD's performance is somewhat par for the course.

For instance, while many creative agencies have utterly compelling websites (their home pages, at any rate), the web efforts of media agencies are open to critical review of a more ambivalent nature.

And then there's the question of brand positioning as conveyed by slogans, mission statements and mantras. The most memorable, arguably, is ZenithOptimedia's "The ROI Agency" - but many rival agencies have always argued that this is something of an own goal for the sector as a whole, implying, as it does, that there are agencies in the sector that aren't wholly focused on return on investment.

And yet it's positively Shakespearean compared with many rival efforts. There are some terrible taglines out there. On the other hand, taglines are hardly the main thrust of agency marketing efforts - and you could argue it's unfair to focus on them. Media agencies have all manner of marketing tricks up their sleeves, from clever brochure-ware initiatives to promotional gimmickry - and some of it, tailored to specific news business tasks, is rather impressive indeed.

PHD's global strategy and planning director, Mark Holden, played no small part in developing the "we are the future" project. He comments: "PHD's recent experience provoked more response than we expected - or were structurally prepared for. But we quickly put in place a social team to manage it the way that we would for any client."

Holden argues that the important thing here was that, in attempting to engage with the population at large, particularly those who might consider themselves "highly anti-advertising", PHD was attempting to break new ground. He continues: "It was a real live experience of the power of the highly connected world. And, as we recognised a bit too late, if you want to create a reaction, you'd better have a plan for dealing with it.

"Unless you are seeking to provoke a reaction, the most consistent marketing is achieved not through claims but through actions such as winning awards and winning business. In the end, these actually mean more to clients."

And, as Paul Phillips, the managing director of the AAR, points out, it's not easy to differentiate yourself in this market. He explains: "I think more media agencies are spending more on marketing, whether it's on seminars or papers, PR or websites or social media. And through the use of taglines and other means of brand positioning, they've realised the importance of having a point of view and creating a narrative to deliver it. This gives clients an opportunity to respond to that point of view."

Meanwhile, Grant Millar, the managing director of Vizeum, is critical of agencies that spend a lot of resource on awards entries, in the mistaken belief that clients care. They don't, he suggests. And Kelly Clark, the worldwide chief executive of Maxus, argues that "overly produced, falsely intellectual twaddle will always be caught out". He adds: "Nobody likes a smarty-pants."

Jim Prior, the chief executive of the branding agency The Partners, says media agencies are good at some aspects of self-promotion - and bad at others. He adds: "Everyone who needs to know about media agencies, does. Agencies know what it takes to establish and sustain commercially successful relationships. Many media agencies and their key people have created an aura around themselves as pragmatic innovators, relentlessly focused on better effectiveness and better value. These are, I imagine, exactly the sort of qualities that clients find most compelling."

MAYBE - Mark Holden, global strategy and planning director, PHD

"We have two audiences: one that may not care as much about our marketing as we think - that'll be the clients - and the other that cares a lot - that'll be the competitors."

YES - Paul Phillips, managing director, AAR

"It's possible for people to take issue with a single aspect of what an agency is doing to market itself - but the activity of most agencies consists of many things. And I'd argue that, yes, they tend to be good at it."

NO - Kelly Clark, worldwide chief executive, Maxus

"Media agencies have a mixed record of marketing themselves. The most effective method for an agency usually takes two forms: getting your best people out and about, or demonstrating great work for your clients. Or both."

MAYBE - Jim Prior, chief executive, The Partners

"If you consider marketing in its broadest sense, then most media agencies are good at it. But if the question is whether they're any good at advertising themselves, then the answer, as for all kinds of agencies, would be a resounding no."

Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com