26 Feb 2018

How should agencies sell themselves?


In November, the Engine chief executive, Debbie Klein, asked her graduates to produce a film to show what the grad scheme was all about. One grad, George Spencer, came up with the idea of reeling in Westwood to front “the worst graduate recruitment video of all time”. Westwood would come in, “be unbearably trite, throw out some in-jokes from a quickly drafted script and play for a few cheap laughs”, Spencer explained. To great amusement, Westwood hit the brief.

Engine may have intended to create something so bad, it’s good, but advertising is not unused to the epithet “worst video of all time”. Agencies perennially succumb to the temptation of creating a film to advertise themselves. And reactions are inevitably strong. “I can’t think of any good ones,” the Ogilvy & Mather London chief executive, Hugh Baillie, says. “It’s quite a damning indictment of our industry.” A marketing director at a top-ten ad agency agrees: “We spend a lot of time and money doing videos for the AAR reel really badly.”

Engine’s self-parody aside, it’s got to be questioned whether agencies should pursue a promotional conceit that is so often and publicly derided. Mark Holden, PHD’s global strategy director, describes the backlash his agency received for its “we are the future” film in March as an “attempted assassination”. “It reminds you how precariously balanced some campaigns are,” he explains. “If something flips negative, you have a phenomenon on your hands.”

Albion’s chief executive, Jason Goodman, is equally cautious. Engine’s video “has got the potential to go viral and destroy the Engine name”, he says, while the Adam & Eve founding partner James Murphy advises: “You need to be clear that an online video will speak for your agency in the way a piece of work for your client would.”

A swathe of the ad community branded PHD’s film patronising.

A 2009 film from Publicis London featuring staff singing a Black Eyed Peas track was “obviously shot by account executives, not creatives”, one YouTube viewer scoffed at the time. Where does it all go wrong? “People get self-conscious when they have to sell themselves,” the unnamed marketing director says. “The promotion looks false. We all know advertising isn’t rocket science, it’s about selling shit.”

But if the motivation for these videos is ultimately for agencies to promote themselves among their peers and clients, surely there are better ways to do it. Albion advocates creating innovative properties as a way to capture attention. “With self-promotion, you have to treat it in a much broader context, asking: ‘How do we do stuff of interest and of use?'” Goodman says.

Meanwhile, Michael Sugden, the managing director of VCCP, thinks the meerkat should do the talking. “The most effective self-promotion is our creative and strategic product. The less time you spend on self-promotion and PR and the more time you spend concentrating on the product, the better shape you’ll be in.”


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