- Agencies are in the business of selling expertise and guidance, but are largely failing to demonstrate it successfully via content and publishing initiatives.
- As competition for client attention heats up, a lackluster approach to publishing is a risk.
In the summer of 2010, ad agency giant Ogilvy & Mather launched “The Red Papers.” Named after the agency’s signature “red” branding, The Red Papers were a series of books written by Ogilvy executives, published quarterly online and intended to demonstrate key areas of the agency’s expertise.
The goal of “The Red Papers” was simple: to explain what the industry — and Ogilvy & Mather — did, according to its then-CEO Miles Young.
It was an early example of brand publishing: Brands showcasing their expertise and authority via content, through owned and operated mediums. .
But barring a few key exceptions, few ad agencies are investing meaningfully in content and publishing efforts beyond the odd blog post, special report or “year in review.” Many are creating content, but keeping it firmly in the private realm, for client or internal eyes only. As a result, they’re missing a real opportunity to grow their businesses and their stature in the industry, and increasingly run the risk of losing mindshare in a market that demands that partners are true experts, not just hands on keyboards.
For agencies particularly, content can be a major differentiator. It’s an opportunity to set themselves and their services apart in a market with growing competition, disruption and commoditization. It can also be an effective way to demonstrate expertise, not just talk about it, and can be a compelling way to earn trust. If agencies want to compete in a cutthroat market, they must consider creating and publishing content more seriously.
For Ogilvy, launching the Red Papers came at an important time. In 2010 the world was just emerging from the end of the 2008 financial crisis. U.S. ad spending had plummeted 12% in 2009. Global spending was down 9%. Per McKinsey estimates, it took nearly four years after the crisis for spending to return to 2007 levels. The crisis pushed revenue diversification and opened up space for competition. Agencies — like everyone else in services businesses — were forced to more clearly demonstrate their value, and to showcase how they were different from the herd.
Fast-forward 11 years, and agencies are back in similarly tenuous positions as they were in 2010. The pandemic has sent economic shockwaves across the agency business, including ballooning inflation, rising prices, a tight labor market and other ongoing market pressures. Things are hard out there.
Given those challenges, it’s notable how few agencies are currently taking a leaf out of Ogilvy’s book and investing in content initiatives to demonstrate their value, capabilities and worth. The ones that do try seem to give up a few years in. The Red Papers stopped publishing a few years after they launched. Other notable moves in this area from a few years ago have largely disappeared, or been subsumed into a general “press releases” section on corporate websites.
Ad agencies could be capitalizing more on brand publishing. They certainly have the raw materials to do so: Many agencies have data on market trends (that is often given to reporters looking for stories) that can be turned into thought leadership. Deep benches of expertise in specific topics abound inside these companies. This expertise is sold to clients in various ways — it can also be turned into written content, or audio, or video, to showcase it to existing clients to deepen relationships, or to market the agency to prospective customers. For many, this expertise is often lent to other entities, to appear in stories or at industry events. But there is really no reason most stories that appear in advertising trade publications can’t be written by the agencies themselves. Like venture capital firms, agencies are well-placed to use content to push narratives in places where it is beneficial to their businesses.
Reasons vary, of course: Publishing isn’t easy. It requires strategic thinking, patience and resources in terms of talent. For agencies specifically, business models are so predicated on billable hours that “non-working media” is rarely prioritized. One other issue is that editorial necessitates perspective — because there is a lot of competition, agencies live in fear of losing a client, and losing one to a misplaced thought that ends up offending someone may be a risk few want to take. Meanwhile, the holding company dilemma, well explained by Sparrow Advisors here, creates an issue where agencies may not fully understand what may make for a good partner to clients and thus become relegated to executional tasks. It’s at least one reason why consultancies like McKinsey and others do better than agencies, and also, by the way, have expansive editorial and publishing arms.)
There are currently relatively few efforts of note (please send us more we’ve missed):
- R/GA’s FutureVision is an online publication focused on showcasing R/GA perspective on all things ‘future,’ and includes a podcast with top execs inside and outside the agency. It recently hired trade journalist Erik Oster to build out the publication.
- Backslash is TBWA/Chiat/Day’s cultural intelligence publishing operation that uses “Culture Spotters” to report and discover stories tied to how culture is changing. It includes a magazine, reports and ongoing stories.
- Code and Theory has Decode, a slickly designed website and editorial platform that covers innovation and creativity in key areas, including education, government and healthcare.
- At GroupM, weekly articles by former Pivotal analyst Brian Wieser cover market trends. And Essence, part of GroupM, recently hired former ad trade journalist Maureen Morrison to build out, among other things, its editorial operation.
But for many, this is a missed opportunity — and one more agencies should consider. A new study from Edelman (A Toolkits client) a few months ago found that the majority of 1,201 business decision-makers say that thought leadership can attract new business. About 61% of respondents said they’d pay a premium to work with organizations that articulate a clear vision using thought leadership content. (The whole study is worth a read.) For agencies, particularly, building audiences that they own can pay dividends when it comes to promoting awareness of their services and position themselves as authorities — advertising their wares to prospects.