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Agencies not being able to promote themselves has historically been a running joke in the industry. Clunky websites filled with an alphabet soup of advertising jargon often come to mind. But as new business increasingly becomes more competitive, the famed mantra “the work, the work, the work” alone isn’t cutting it.

Agency mega-mergers, encroaching business consultancies and a burgeoning number of startups have led to more shops chasing less work. Jay Pattisall, VP and principal analyst at Forrester, said the first half of this year was particularly tough on agencies, given more projects, slashed budgets and fewer large retainer contracts shrinking the pitch pile. In addition, clients have become more reticent in allowing shops to publicize account moves and the work agencies do for them, forcing shops to become more proactive when it comes to lead generation.

“Agencies can no longer rely on their creative reputations to speak for them,” he said.

So increasingly, they are speaking for themselves. Whether it’s through social outlets such as TikTok and LinkedIn, self-funded podcasts or redesigns, shops are striving to carve out their own clear identity, personality and point of view. The ultimate goal is to catch the attention of busy client chief marketing officers, who, in the words of Matt Ryan, CEO of consultancy Roth Ryan Hayes, “generally have a low awareness of agency brands.”

Below are some of the newer means agencies are trying to go after prospects by showcasing their thinking in addition to their work.

Social Media

Earlier this year, Mischief @ No Fixed Address received over 2 million views on a 15-second video of its head of development, Oliver McAteer, reacting to a TikToker praising a Tinder campaign led by the independent agency.

Although the video seems simple, it’s endemic to Mischief’s larger brand strategy since it launched in 2020.

“We want to give people the impression that they know what they’re getting into when they see Mischief from the outside in, even if they’d never seen our work,” said McAteer, who works on external communications for the agency as well as new business. “When you look at the external communications, on our social media, that is how we talk in an RFP. We talk like we're having a conversation.”

McAteer, who often shows up in Mischief’s social posts, helps lead content for the agency’s social accounts, including its “10-second ads” series, in which he breaks down a Mischief ad in 10 seconds, and “Behind the Ad” series, which explains how and why a certain ad was made.

Beyond gaining awareness for the Mischief brand, TikTok is also meant to be an example of the social work that the agency is capable of while also highlighting the strategy and effectiveness of its other work for clients.

Another agency doubling down on social content is Mojo Supermarket, which recently launched an internal “Socialmarket” team that runs its social accounts. Using social as a new business tool, this year alone it has created videos targeted toward prospective clients such as Popeyes, Slim Jim (as shown below), and Slutty Vegan. While the videos didn’t lead to immediate new business wins, it was well worth the exercise, said Hannah Benabdallah, the agency’s head of communications.

“It’s opened conversations [with the brands’ marketing leaders] that will continue to be ongoing,” said Benabdallah. “It lets these marketers and other industry people, whether they're agency people or on the client side, know who we are and consider us either to work with us or for us.”

Chemistry launched several projects this year promoting the Atlanta-based shop. One comical video showed moms of “famous CMOs” warning them of the dangers of Chemistry’s disruptive way of working.

For Halloween, Chemistry launched a social media effort on its channels, inviting clients and prospects to scare them by sharing their most “gruesome” business problems.

While the efforts didn’t yield any new accounts, they helped spark conversation with prospective clients. “We got a lot of positive responses from our social posts and emails, and they helped to put Chemistry on prospects’ radars,” said Chemistry's Chief Growth Officer Taylor Guglielmo.

While many agencies have a social media strategy, few tend to stick out. R/GA is known for its witty and pointed X (formerly Twitter) account that often pokes fun at the industry, while other agencies such as VaynerMedia use their employees as influencers to create content.

LinkedIn learnings

LinkedIn has become the go-to for agencies seeking to connect with chief marketing officers and other executives directly. “Instead of us spending a lot of time with traditional outbound strategy, the more you listen, and the more content we put out as a team, the more opportunities appear,” said Kaylen McNamara, chief business officer of VaynerX, which owns Vayner Media.

VaynerX also makes it a point to frequently host dinners and events throughout the year with existing and potential clients—some of them hosted with relationships developed on LinkedIn.

“These have become a way to win business through referrals rather than RFPs,” said McNamara. “We are in no way relying on RFPs. We say no to a lot of RFPs,” McNamara said. “A lot of times in an RFP, it’s hard to understand if a client’s really able to change the way they do things or if it's more of a cost-cutting measure.”

Jason Mitchell, founder of social agency Movement Strategy, recently started using LinkedIn to post his thoughts on various industry topics. Since posting, he’s generated more than 1 million impressions and a couple of his posts have generated around 500,000 impressions organically, Mitchell said.

Through his posts, Mitchell has been able to connect and speak with people in the industry who didn’t know about his agency.

The key to posting is having a strong point of view on a topic, while not worrying whether others might agree, according to Mitchell. Not being purposefully negative or contentious to garner engagement is also key, Mitchell said.

“I've used LinkedIn to test a lot of my theories,” Mitchell said. “I have an idea and I post it and I get reactions from people and they’re like, ‘Well actually, have you considered this?’ It helps me test out my strategies and my theories, and fine-tune the thinking around what the industry wants.”

Mitchell plans to grow his agency’s presence on the platform. “Right now I'm the only one at my company doing [thought leadership on LinkedIn] regularly, but we have plans for three more people to start doing it, because in terms of the effort and return, it feels more effective than most other things we've done on social from a B2B marketing perspective.”

Mischief’s McAteer said LinkedIn has become the platform where the agency, which often posts meme-style content among more traditional business posts, has seen the most engagement. Several agencies also said they have hired employees who connected with them via direct messages on different social platforms.

Marketers mostly find agencies through word of mouth, text exchanges and other communities, said Lindsey Slaby, the founder of consultancy Sunday Dinner. They are also paying more attention to thought leadership and reports that can help build their business. For example, Slaby said she’s noticed marketers passing around a recent study by branding agency Jones Knowles Ritchie and research firm Ipsos centered around how brands can be distinctive.

She also cited The Working Assembly’s “Friday Fives” newsletter, which lists five interesting news items of the week, and Interbrand’s brand ranking report. What Slaby feels doesn’t work includes generic quarterly update emails or agencies doing excessive self-promotion online.

“Some agencies are doing a lot of self-promotion that may leave one to wonder, ‘Are they busy?' Sometimes it’s not productive and is more about making fun of the industry, which also is a turnoff,” Slaby said.

Power of Podcasts

Podcasts also offer an opportunity to showcase an agency’s thinking while offering insights from CMOs and leaders of the industry.

One of the more popular industry podcasts is “Talking to Ourselves” from Omid Farhang, CEO and co-founder of Majority.

Centered around interviewing industry executives, the podcast also has a guest-host format in which two executives have a conversation without Farhang. Most recently, Mischief@No fixed Address Founder Greg Hahn interviewed Translation CEO Steve Stoute.

Since its launch nearly seven years ago, the podcast has had an average of 10,000 downloads per episode, according to Farhang.

“One of the best ways to show clients we can be trusted with their valuable brands is to build a valuable brand of our own,” Farhang said. “Most agency podcasts fail for the same reason advertising campaigns fail: by focusing on what’s in it for us. My podcast succeeds for the same reason advertising campaigns succeed: by focusing on what’s in it for the audience.”

In September, WPP’s Chief Creative Officer Rob Reilly launched the “Screaming Creativity” podcast in which he interviews different people in the industry and even members outside of it, such as actor and comedian Marlon Wayans.

Cincinnati-based agency Curiosity has a “Question Everything” podcast, billed as “part interview, part therapy, part ‘Price is Right,’” that fits with its self-defined curious identity.

Similarly, the title of Mekanism Co-Founder and CEO Jason Harris’ “The Soul & Science Podcast” podcast echoes the agency’s mantra. It features Harris interviewing different marketers and executives; past guests have included Shake Shack CMO Jay Livingston, Harmless Harvest CEO Ben Mand, Olipop Co-Founder and President David Lester and Indeed CMO Jessica Jensen.

Since its launch in March 2022, the podcast has “frequently” led to new business opportunities and has led to several new clients, according to Harris.

“The podcast serves as both a case study when we host current clients to share success stories, and as an exploration into the inner workings of brands we’ve yet to work with,” Harris said. “In terms of new business prospects, the podcast provides an excellent opportunity to pick the brains of marketers without the pressure of an RFP on the table.”

Redesigns and Visual Identity

A logo is more than a collection of letters: it’s an agency’s first impression to the world. That’s why some shops are modernizing and redefining their visual identity to reflect how they think.

The latest example is MullenLowe, which recently redesigned its global identity, including reimagining its octopus logo. “It felt like MullenLowe was showing up feeling a little old,” said João Paz, head of design at MullenLowe U.S., in June about the previous logo. “We took that brief to heart and created a new logo that broke from everything.”

The new logo is dynamic with a sense of movement and reinvention—it’s more free-flowing and has 26 versions, including an app that allows employee customization. “You can expand the tentacles, twist it, twirl it around to create your own expression of it,” said Paz.

The current trend toward carving out a strong agency identity might have been borne of tough times, but can ultimately help an agency refocus and build the business, according to Juan Carlos Pagan, co-founder of Sunday Afternoon, which has done redesigns for shops including Fig and Joan.

“The general truth is the fact that when you’re having a tough year, when you’re downsizing, agencies start doing some self-reflecting, and they start thinking about their core values and how to really position themselves accordingly,” Pagan said. “So when things do get good, the story that they're telling is the right story.”

This article was originally published in Ad Age here.