Do you stumble when asked to describe your firm’s “elevator pitch?” Most agency executives do. The unfortunate truth is that most of us don’t have a very thorough understanding of how our companies create value.
You can likely recite your services and products, but these are only the features of your firm — not its benefits. Economists have long argued that people don’t buy actual products and services, but rather the utility these products and services create in the life of the buyer. As Harvard’s Ted Levitt famously taught his marketing students, “No one ever buys a three-quarter-inch drill; they buy the expectation of a three-quarter-inch hole.”
Of all the businesses on the planet, advertising agencies should know better, yet most agency websites read like a list of components found on the window sticker of a new car. By atomizing their services into elemental parts, these firms are unwittingly commoditizing their offerings.
Multiple Dimensions of Value
Breaking your services down into the lowest common denominator is the job of the buyer, not the seller. Sophisticated buyers (especially procurement professionals) do this intentionally as a way of focusing the dialogue on direct “apples to apples” price comparisons to competitors. But the seller has a job, too, which is to frame the value of the offering.
When agencies focus on just the outputs (or worse, just the inputs in the form of hours required to do the work), they pass up the opportunity to frame the real value they create for their clients. Marketers don’t really buy campaigns; they buy the effects of the campaign in the marketplace.
If you drill down further on the question of value, there’s an entire constellation of benefits buyers seek — most of which never appear in an RFP, but ultimately sway the actual buying decision. Research done by Bain & Company has produced what they call a “Value Pyramid,” which features rational benefits that ladder up to strong emotional benefits.
Curiously, most agencies assume these benefits apply to every industry but their own. This explains why sales literature and presentations of professional firms are littered with the same tired language about “client centricity,” and “a custom approach to every problem.” These firms simply haven’t stopped to analyze where they are on the benefits ladder, and more importantly, what their clients and customers value in the first place.
A Thought Experiment
Bring to mind an important new prospect. Using the list below, could you rank order what this client is most interested in buying?
- Saving time
- Reducing cost
- Making money
- Reducing risk
- Integrating services
- Simplifying process
- Reducing effort
- Improving organization
- Enhancing reputation
- Reducing anxiety
- Accessing expertise
Most of these well-researched factors appear in the Bain & Company study and are shown to drive real purchase behavior in a variety of different categories from banking to smartphones.
To put it simply, agencies — who are masters of selling their clients’ products — are woefully inept at selling their own services. Not because they lack the persuasive talent — they have that in spades — but because they have allowed themselves to fall into the trap of framing their value as the services the provide instead of the problems they solve.
Tim Williams leads Ignition Consulting Group, a consultancy that helps agencies create and capture more value.