A thousand words on finding the right agency to help you. Which could save you thousands.

Generalist v Specialist – who wins? And why?

Choosing the right ad agency can make or break a marketing manager’s career. Or a business. Getting the wrong result from your advertising can be very expensive.

So it’s hardly surprising that when clients are seeking “pitches” from ad agencies for their company, they often look for agencies with experience in their specific industry.

In many cases, clients simply assume that an agency with historical experience in their area – for example, with a “Pharmaceuticals” background, or “Fast Moving Consumer Goods” – are most likely to give them a pitch to set their imaginations alight.

Maybe. But maybe not.

And with the growth of online media in all its forms, the world of marketing has seen innumerable companies popping up or re-branding themselves as “digital specialists”, even if that “speciality” is little more than access to someone with a bit of HTML5 coding ability, or a case history or two of organising a programmatic ad campaign that they didn’t even plan or buy themselves. Yet clients cheerfully announce they want access to “digital specialists”, assuming they’ll get a brave new world response full of contemporary insights and ideas.

It ain’t necessarily so.

And ironically, clients may do themselves out of the best agency for their work because they are worrying too much about “specialities” and not enough about the quality of thinking that an agency bring to the table, and their proven strategic development methodology.

So why might you not use a specialist?

Let’s make something clear up front. Some specialist agencies have a proud record of doing great work. We are not tipping a bucket on the very concept of specialist agencies. We are simply asking, are they the only route to consider?

Immersion. A refreshing process.

When an agency takes on a new client, the first step should be for them to become utterly, intimately enmeshed in the client’s business. At MOP, we call this process “Immersion.”

In our experience, this discovery phase should not be skipped. Should never be skipped.

When a client appoints an “industry specialist”, they may be unwittingly robbing themselves of truly original thinking.

It’s not that the specialist agency don’t care, or they’re irresponsible. It’s just the way the human brain works. It’s called “confirmation bias” – we tend to see new things based on our previous experience.

Confirmation Bias
noun – the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.


So the unspoken assumption is that what worked for one situation must, theoretically, work for another, and if a basic strategy – or even the creative expression of that strategy – can be recycled, then that’s a low-admin-overload route to take, and also, theoretically, a low-risk option for the client.

But because of this “short cut to solution”, the all-important “Immersion” process – which as anyone worth their salt will tell you is what births truly great ideas – ideas that can transform a market – may be skipped, either entirely or to some extent, or performed inadequately.

So how does this play out in the real world?

Sometimes, the inevitable end result of working with specialist agencies is that insights that the agency offer can be somewhat self-limited, or simply un-original.

And sometimes too much emphasis is put on exhaustive segmentation research and narrow targeting, which can be unnecessarily limiting – if not outright counterproductive.

Not always, but sometimes. If you only ever look to “the usual suspects” for support, then the solutions you’ll get offered will sooner or later start to be somewhat similar, too.

Have a look at the drugs marketing you see in pharmacies.

Our bowels are just great thanks. And our toe fungus. And our vitamin levels. And …

Take the logo and pack shot off the posters and it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish one happy family snap enjoying regular bowel movements from another.

But advertising is pointless if it doesn’t get noticed. And far too much healthcare advertising is easy to ignore, because it uses bland imagery, or clichéd copy, or too much unnecessary detail. Advertisers must resist falling into these traps. If your ad gets noticed, you’re over the first – and probably biggest – hurdle.

Or look at TVCs for cars.

Endless regurgitations of vehicles apparently (but not actually) travelling fast along windy roads, accompanied by a ludicrously overblown and self-regarding voiceover and dramatic music.

Such “specialist” advertising often results in cliché piled on cliché. All with apparently good – but in fact fallacious – arguments behind the executions but delivering no brand differentiation, and no motivation.

Anyone watching an evening’s commercial TV knows that our industry is much more repetitious than it is genuinely original. After all, everyone in Australia hears or sees 8-900 ads a day. Probably more, now, with online advertising having exploded. But how many were memorable? Really? How many moved you? Really.

And how many were bland? Safe. Tried and tested. And endlessly repeated. And yes, great ideas may bear being repeated, but should safe or mediocre ones?

The alternative to this common dead end is to engage an agency that appears to be able to create stunning results in any segment of the economy, when they are briefed carefully, given their head, and positively encouraged to come up with new insights.

Fresh eyes. It’s worth searching for them.

In this model, the client is searching for the agency’s ability to absorb market knowledge but also to think about it in a new way.

Searching for that flash of inspiration which redefines a market, creating a step change, not an incremental blip on a sales chart. It is the very freshness of the input that counts. The generalist agency innocently asks “Why can’t we do this?”

So next time you need a pitch, what about looking for an ad agency that says “Actually, we don’t specialise in any market segment. We get people.”

“We get people whatever age they are, and whatever their background, and whatever they’re buying. And we will draw on our knowledge of people to devise you a new and compelling way to get their attention, and to convince them of your message.”

The drivers that make people choose, think or do something do not vary that wildly from age group to age group. And nor do they vary that wildly from industry segment to industry segment. Or from culture to culture. Essentially, people want the same thing:

  • To feel our lives have meaning.
  • We’d all rather be loved than not.
  • We’d all rather not die decades before our allotted span.
  • We all love sport, music, movies, books, walks, food and animals.
  • We all want good value when we spend our money, however much money we’re spending, and whatever we’re spending it on.
  • Given a choice, we’d all rather be good people, and we’d like to think the people around us are too.
  • We all want to be treated with courtesy and respect.

At MOP, we know that these core motivations do not vary between an 18 year old or an 80 year old. They apply to buying a car or a packet of painkillers or the weekly shop. And by the way, they’re no different in Rio, from New York, from London, from Hong Kong to Melbourne. But that’s yet another story.

Leveraging these core needs, intelligently, and empathetically, is at the centre of all effective marketing.

And maybe, just maybe, you and your business should be talking an agency who can demonstrate convincingly to you that they get people.

All people.

It could make you millions.

If you’d like to find out more about Magnum Opus Partners and view some of our work, please head to our new website, here.

Author: Stephen Yolland

Director of Creative Strategy and Partner @ Magnum Opus Partners.

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