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Category experience – The most (or least) important thing

These considerations will impact your advertising results, and relationships with agency partners


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Here’s a little bit of ad agency insider baseball:

Consultancies that advise the advertising industry are telling agencies to focus prospecting efforts on a single vertical, or at least specialize in a category, and use that experience to sell to that sector and adjacent industries. The primary reason for this is, historically, clients have sought agencies that already have a wealth of experience in their specific space.

Even though the standard advice given to agencies is to position as niche specialists, it doesn’t mean using an agency that focuses on a specific industry is always the right move for client-side marketers. In truth, your agency may not need any experience at all in your vertical. An agency’s job is not to regurgitate the same ideas over and over; it’s to understand what your audiences care about, and concept smart executions that inspire desired actions or thoughts.

The insight here is that these consultancies are selling the niche target methodology because it is better for agencies. It’s simply advice for agencies on how to get hired more often, and grow agency revenue. However, it’s not necessarily the best solution for brands.

For example, if you’re in the hotel business, do you want an agency that’s worked in the hospitality arena for 20-plus years, or do you want an agency that has fresh solutions to fill your rooms and keep your event calendar booked? That’s not to say that the agency team with years of hotel experience doesn’t have amazing ideas, they very well might – it’s simply that sector experience isn’t the driver.

Hospitality has changed dramatically over the years, so the successful ideas of today have nothing to do with what worked a decade ago, or even two years ago. In fact, whatever worked 10 years ago, is actually less likely to make an impact now.

So, sure, if I’ve done a lot of hospitality work, I may know that general occupancy is less important than revenue per occupied room, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee that I understand how millennials with money prefer to travel, nor does it mean that I can generate differentiating tactical ideas that drive inquiries.

On the flip side, I understand why using an agency with category experience can be appealing to client-side marketers. It stands to reason that an agency that has already worked in your world will have a shorter learning curve, understand your lingo, and may even have proprietary insights from competitors. Plus, it’s easier to sell the agency up the approval chain if they can demonstrate “proven industry-specific case studies.” All that said, I still assert there are far more important factors when selecting an agency partner than whether or not they can talk the talk.

I’ve started a lot of sentences in my career with, “If I were the client, I’d…”

In the case of choosing an agency, I’d finish that statement with something like this:

If I were selecting an agency, I’d…

…choose a team filled with people I trust.

…find an agency that doesn’t let ego get in the way of effectiveness.

…pick people who are fun and likable (why not make the work enjoyable?).

…work with an agency that can deliver terrifying/leading-edge ideas, tried-and-true-traditional executions and everything in between.

hire partners who are truly curious about your business and willing to dig deep to uncover the right insights to move your audiences.

These considerations will impact in your advertising results, and relationships with your agency partners. 

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Cassie Augustine

Cassie Augustine is a partner, and the chief strategy officer at Agency Zero in Denver, providing insights that turn consumers into brand advocates.

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