You are in a new business pitch and suddenly you hear “What experience do you have in the category?” As a small unknown agency, this thought alone just makes you squirm. You know you can help this client think about their business and their marketing in a new and interesting way. However, they need someone who knows luxury, automobile, apparel, underwater fur-lined furniture, or whatever. Just recently I read Marc Brownstein small agency blog on this same issue and he states…
I think many clients simply want the security blanket of being able to tell their bosses that they hired an agency who’s been there before. A little CYA…How often do you come across a sea of sameness from agencies that have multiple clients in the same category, or a deep history of clients in one category? Happens all of the time…Believe me, I’ve witnessed it on more than one occasion. I really think agencies with lots of experience in one industry go into their grab-bag of tricks once too often, and the client is the one who pays the price.
Did Crispin win Burger King because of their fast-food experience? Nope. Did Strawberry Frog win Unisys’ global business by leveraging their technology lineage? Nope again. I could go on and on.
I completely agree with Marc. Big accounts get won everyday without having prior relevant experience. While some of those who win get by on past relationships between agencies and clients others rely on whoever the latest buzz shop might be. Many of them get lucky with a client that has a vision and can see past his or her own sphere.
As for the rest, it’s too easy for us to say “Oh well that’s the client loss for wanting to increase their monotony within the rest of the category.” However, there is a point in which you have to say "Did we do everything we can to help them realize the value of our innocence?" What I think Marc is missing in his posting is how important inexperience is in most categories. Howard Shultz sold swedish kitchen equipment before taking on coffee, Michael Dell as well as those Google boys took on multi-million dollar competitors as college students, and Richard Branson is a story upon himself. They were created with someone looking at things and saying “there’s got to be better way or more interesting way of doing that.” What these companies or brands have in common is upon their creation or shortly thereafter, a certain amount of intelligent innocence was applied to how they view the world.
The question at hand is how do we prove that "intelligent innocence" is worthwhile in a sea of new business that is:
"…taught that category experience is valuable, perhaps essential. There is a natural tendency in a company to think its sphere of business or category is special, with its own rules, intrinsically different from everyone elses."– Adam Morgan Eating the Big Fish
There is no universal answer to how to deal with lack of category experience. You are always going to face certain clients who need the warm fuzzy security of "been there, done that." Chances are those are not the types of clients you want anyway. To me, it comes down to having a clearly defined view on how your team approaches a clients business and then sticking to those beliefs. Consistency will eventually pay off.
Although it is very hard to hear that you are not qualified for a job becuase you lack experience, few of us are surprised when clients ask this question.
To me there are really four important dimensions to this issue:
1. How we define “experience” is an important part of answering this question well. For instance, the owner of Nick’s fur-lined furniture store may be as interested in experience working with consumers who have bought similar items as much as direct-to-consumer furniture sales experience.
A major part of the modern agency pitch process is sifting through client history for lessons that can be applied to others.
2. This notion of intellectual innocence is a tremendous idea. Nick’s main piont is that it is agencies who are not encumbered by traditional thought processes or laboring through the conventional wisdom about a category that are responsible for much of the break through work we see.
Case in point: Detroit is managed by agencies who have spent decades selling cars to american consumers — my old shop JWT practically started with Henry Ford (and amazingly still have the Ford account). The Ford team is stunningly bright and ferociously competitive. Still they are getting creamed. By contrast Crispin’s work for VW is an amazing breath of fresh air (think Back Seat Driver and the Ego Index).
The best way to get new thinking is from people who are outside the category looking in –rather than deeply roopted in the business and unwilling (or unable) to approach the issue from a new perspective.
I’ll offer as proof the rate at which encumbent agencies fail to retain their accounts when the accounts go into review.
3. But honestly, how many marketing directors get out of bed in the morning determined to change the world? Change is scary. Fresh means different and different means more hours justifying work internally and defending it from negative comments. We would do a lot worse than to try and identify what kind of issues are on our prospects mind. Why sell global change to a guy who just wants to sell some chairs? There are clients like that in every agency–our problem is identifying them in advance.
4. Finally, speaking as someone who once held a couple of senior marketing positions, I can tell you that it is very comforting to talk to someone who has been there before.
Great post, Nick.
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