It is a common dilemma. You get into a review or a conversation with a marketer, and you have little or no current category-specific work to show. Your best case studies or your only cases are in other categories. You pour through all your old client’s past work, your creative director’s past experience, and anything you ever pitched searching for something that relates. Maybe the only thing you can find is work that is ten years old, or worse, before the internet. Arrgghh!
Anyone in the ad business has faced this predicament. And yet, agencies win new clients even though they don’t have direct experience. How does that happen? Just recently, a Hollywood agency best known for its work in the video game industry beat a group of well-established B2B agencies to win a Fortune 500 multinational construction and engineering globe giant, as reported by Adweek. How does that happen?
Our industry is full of exceptions
We know from the data that the number one concern among marketers is the experience an agency has in their category. As high as 75% confirm this belief in survey after survey. On the other hand, 25% don’t care or don’t rate category experience as important. But still, it seems from frequent news reports and press releases that the number of agencies winning outside their core experience may be greater than 1 in 4. Is it just a fluke or is there something more?
Some will never accept out of category experience
I’ve found that there is a significant number of marketers and procurement people who just will not consider an agency that doesn’t have category experience. The definition of experience varies from as specific as work done for that brand’s competitors to experience more broadly defined. The first step is to try and understand what their true tolerance is. I’ve had marketers say they don’t care about category experience only to find that the winning agency had direct category experience. They cared. Double arrgghh!
Setting aside the clients who only accept actual direct category experience, what opened minded clients really want when they ask for experience is something different. There are four dimensions to relevant experience; product or service experience, category or industry experience, customer or audience experience, and experience solving a relatable problem in another category or other audience. That doesn’t mean something as generic as increasing sales in another industry will translate to their category. But a product you worked on in another category that was very technical with a long consideration cycle just like theirs might if you show how you made the complex simple and steered the customer through the long journey. And how you would do the same for them.
What does experience really mean
When smart marketers want experience, what they really want is an agency that can develop real actionable insights into key category issues. These problems can be derived from any category but must be translated to their customer and their challenges. Remember, marketers hire agencies for expertise that they don't already have and not because someone at some time had exposure or an incidental experience with their product. Even if you have never worked on a liquor brand, you can demonstrate fresh thinking and clever insights by looking at their puzzle from a different angle. Use a current client example that reflects their challenge and shows how you solved it together with quantifiable results. And then show how it could work in their category. That is when they will value your outsider experience.
Are marketer’s category concerns warranted
Marketers are concerned about the learning curve, about having to retell their story over and over and seeing the same mistakes. And you can’t blame them. But equally as bad is the predictability and complacency of category experience. The best ideas come from people who can say with confidence, why not turn this problem upside down and think about it in a new way. Marketers want people who dare to point out that your competitors are doing it this way. Why not be different? In truth, non-category experience should be valued even more.
Show the cases you have that demonstrate the value of outsider experience and what that meant to your client’s success. Point out how the competitors relied on category experience to make slight improvements to their plan while your client leapfrogged them all to gain share, market position, new customers and increased sales. It’s easier to see the value in an agency’s thinking when the marketer can see their customer segments reacting the way they want them to for their product.
Tell the truth
Most important, marketers want people who have the guts, to tell the truth. An agency that is honest about what their team does and doesn’t will impress the marketer more than the agency that stretches and distorts what they claim to know. If a strategist worked in the category at their previous agency, say it. The experience of the team is the experience the client gets. It doesn’t matter if it was the agency’s client. It will establish the agency as a credible and honest partner, just the kind of partner clients value the most.
If you want to compete for a brand and you don’t have current relevant cases or category experience, you know what to do. Take out your best experiences with similar audience or the same marketing challenge in a different category. Tell those stories in a way the brings forward the similarities, identifies the relevant challenges, highlights the same market dynamics, and the same goals then show how you solved it. If you can do so with confidence, integrity, and honesty, you just might win a Fortune 500 multinational with only video game experience.
I’ve got some ideas about how you can make your agency more successful regardless of your experience, and I’m happy to share them with you. If you like this post click the thumbs up so I’ll know and then sign up for my new business newsletter. #LetsGrow!