Stop Using ‘Category Experience’ as a Criteria to Hire an Agency

If I had a penny for every time a client Request for Proposal (RFP) document asked if the agency has relevant category experience, I would be rich and retired today…

Not sure if this is something clients are taught in some secret “client” school but it has become a global epidemic and I for one am completely unable to understand why. For those not from the wicked world of advertising and marketing – when a prospective client is looking to hire a new ad agency they send out an RFP and it always asks if the agency has relevant category experience (they are most often eliminated if they do not). For example, Mercedes-Benz would look for an agency with automotive experience and Benadryl for one with pharmaceutical/healthcare category experience.

I have never understood why it is so important for an automaker to only find someone who has sold a car before. Or why they believe that an agency that has sold cars is the only one capable of selling another car. One would think that clients would seek out agencies that have the greatest salespeople. People who have done great work across many different categories; rather than limiting themselves to car salesman. If I were a client I would never limit myself when selecting a new agency partner. There is good reason why it is so hard for consumers to tell automotive, financial services and pharmaceutical advertisements apart. The best way to illustrate my point is by using a golfing analogy.

All professional golfers play on many different courses around the world. With every new course they need to navigate a totally different layout, wind conditions, sand quality and even climate and vegetation make a dramatic difference in everything from distance control to putting green speeds. Most good golfers are able to negotiate these aspects and sufficiently play a competitive round but great golfers have the ability to raise their game. They can take their past experiences and combine it with innate skills and talent, adapt their game, and excel in new and varying conditions. As a result, after spending a very short time learning the intricacies of the new course, they are able to master it and win.

Great agency practitioners are the same way. They have the necessary skills to adapt to the needs of any category and client because the fundamentals of great advertising never change – a great strategy, a powerful customer insight and creative work built on an idea. This is what differentiates iconic brands from regular brands and courageous clients from clients.

I have also found that agencies and agency folk with strong cross-category experiences bring not only a fresh set of eyes to a challenge but also richer perspectives that ultimately lead to better solutions for their clients. Over my career I have sold ice-cream, complex CRM solutions, baby products and even launched a television channel. It is our wealth of cross-category experiences that ensures we are well-versed enough to develop a corporate M&A strategy one day and help market a dandruff shampoo the next.
So the next time you are selecting a new agency, look for diversity of experience versus specific category experience – you might just end up being delighted by the ground breaking and category re-defining work your agency delivers.