How to tell your agency’s story

Working together to tell compelling stories is what marketers do every day. But where to begin when it is time to tell the agency’s own story? The sheer diversity and volume of work in the modern agency can’t just be lumped into a reel without turning it into an intermission-worthy epic.

Listening to the right voices, and trusting the right instincts, can build loyalty, camaraderie, and trust. It also forces agencies to shake off the rust and look at themselves through a clearer lens. “The way agencies tell their own stories is top of mind but at the bottom of the list of priorities, since the client work always comes first,” says Shane Ginsberg, president of Evolution Bureau (EVB). “That’s why most agencies are fundamentally embarrassed by their own websites.”

Coping with choice

Bulleted lists of capabilities don’t tell a compelling story, so John McNeil Studio (JMS) looks around the office and builds its own story around two key concepts: “What we’re doing” and “What we aren’t.” Those images help balance JMS’ position as a full-service, generalist agency. “Our work is so varied that we don’t know next whether we’re going to make a TV commercial or a mobile game,” says group creative director Gerald Lewis.

JMS can’t solve its storytelling challenges by building a deeper website or publishing a longer reel. Emphasizing attitude and positioning, rather than specific media capabilities, helps clients reach their own conclusions about the reach of the studio’s capabilities. “We’re not here to sell you 50 pounds of media or a TV campaign because that’s all we make. We tell clients that we’re here to make any experience necessary to attach to the brand,” Lewis says.

EVB avoids the three-hour reel problem by building smaller, shareable vignettes. Distributing responsibility for creating and distributing those vignettes in turn helps solidify the team on the agency’s internal message. “It used to be that you had a reel and you were done, but there’s more than one solution to telling your story now,” Ginsberg says. “You have to move away from the typical agency reel to a story reel that shows the thoughts behind your process, not your flashiest creatives.”

Who’s talking?

Guiding the internal discussion about agency branding is not the same thing as dominating the discussion. Just how collaborative can telling an agency’s story be when the founder’s name is on the door and he’s running the shop? “Being that we’re a smaller place, there’s not a day that goes by when we don’t have a discussion among all the senior leadership in the studio about what we should and shouldn’t be doing,” Lewis says. “But concept of ‘what we’re doing’ and ‘what we aren’t’ comes from all of the talents in the studio.”

Major changes in storytelling should get the benefit of major collaboration. EVB is in the finishing stages of an image revamp to solidify its credentials as a Millennial-attuned agency. Ginsberg looped in not only clients and employees past and present, but also SEO consultants, analysts, and journalists to refine the message. “We learned that some things we thought were very clever turned out to be trite, and some things we thought would be throwaways really resonated,” he says. “Barrels of ink have been spilled about the Millennial consumer, and those external voices helped us tell a more compelling and provocative story.”

Who’s listening?

EVB refines its message with the mindset that the most important audience for its story isn’t the prospective client, but the prospective hire. Strong client referrals do much of the sales work for the agency, so luring in top talent takes priority. “Our story exemplifies the culture we have, the way we approach things, the way we want to be and how we want to work,” Ginsberg says. “Every single person at our agency should own that story, because it is their story. Prospective clients are last on the list, even though that’s where most efforts in agency-land go.”

Finally, keep in mind that people listen best when they hear about a journey. Lewis advises peers to build their message around who they want to be, not who they want to sign. “If you go out there and build your message to go after a specific client, it never pans out. When you just build a machine, you get the kind of work a machine can do,” he says. “Your image is the type of work you want to make.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.