From the Brains On Fire blog:
It’s a question we get asked a lot, “Do you have experience working with (fill in the blank)?” Banks or the automotive industry or restaurants or whatever. And I’m not saying it’s a bad question to ask. But I think how creative companies handle the answer is the important part.
As a company, we’ve been around for more than two decades, closing in on three. And in that time, we’ve worked with many, many different companies in many, many different industries and because of that, we have more experience in some industries than others. But I would argue that in some cases, not having any experience in a particular industry can actually be an asset. That’s right, it can be a good thing.
Often you’ll find that after a while, creative companies that specialize in one particular industry stop questioning everything. They think they already have the answers after just a glance. And, even worse, all of their work starts to look the same. I’ve seen this happen with creative companies that specialize in higher education and motor sports, to name a few.
The downside of not having experience is that you have to learn a lot. Nuances. Industry celebs and personalities. The ins-and-outs.
The upside, though, is that you get to approach this new world with a child-like innocence. There are no preconceived notions. No biases. You get to question everything, especially the “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” answers. And as an identity company, we consider this to be a good thing. A great thing, as a matter of fact.
So don’t let the experience question make you stumble. While a lot of people are afraid of it, you can actually use it to your advantage…and then you just have to deliver on it.
I have noticed recently that some of the local “marketing” firms (some design websites, others develop collateral like brochures and catalogs… and some do both) have begun to “specialize” in certain areas. Real Estate, for example. It’s actually getting to the point where everything – from layouts to photography to fonts – is indistinguishable from one development to the next, and from one firm to the next, for that matter.
Nothing stands out anymore.
None of the work is all that enticing… which means that the clients aren’t getting their money’s worth.
The work may be pretty in some cases, and the photography may be pretty fly, but it’s all starting to look and feel like copies of copies of copies of copies of copies.
It’s all become very cookie-cutter.
And I can imagine what kinds of conversations are going on between these firms and their clients:
Client: “Hey (firm), can you put something together for (project XYZ)? Just do the same thing you did last time, only… you know. Different. But not too different.”
Great. Change the color scheme, throw in some new photography and architectural art, tweak the bullet points, and voila.
The automotive “experts” are just as bad. Every piece designed for a car dealership looks like the hundreds that came before it. Don’t even get me started on grocery stores, restaurants, and most retailers.
Because they’ve done it hundreds of times before, and for dozens of clients, they become specialists in “real estate marketing” or “grocery store marketing” or whatever. And their stuff sucks. It’s stale. It’s beyond derivative.
And that makes it grossly ineffective.
Still, the reflex for many companies is to continue to call upon these firms to produce yet another bland and forgettable campaign. Why? Because they market themselves as having a lot of experience in a specific industry, the logical conclusion to be drawn is that because of that specific experience, they are the most qualified to get the best results. That is the sort of flawed logic that gets businesses in trouble.
As a marketer or a creative, if your job is to help people discover a product or a brand, you have to go through the process of discovery yourself. The excitement of this discovery has to be fresh in your mind. You have to come from a position of relative ignorance in order to be able to ask the right questions. (The questions that someone who lives in that world or industry hasn’t thought to ask in years, if ever.) If you spend too much time hanging out in the same place, your creativity becomes stagnant. You start to run out of ideas. Your work starts looking bland.
Creating great work for clients can’t just be a business process: Fill in the blanks. Select color & font. Plug in images. Print. It shouldn’t feel routine. Ever.
On our end (F360), the last thing we want is to land another gym or personal trainer. We already have several on our client list, and we value the work we do for them way too much to start gravitating towards a specialization in that market. The same goes with sports apparel, business services, and medical offices. (But hey, we’re still relatively innocent and fresh when it comes to banks and restaurants, so feel free to bring it on next month when we open the books again and start taking on new projects and clients!) ;D
The point is that as young and small as we are as a company, we already understand that our value to our clients comes from our ability to approach every project with fresh ideas. Specialization would be the death of us, as it is the death of great creative work for any agency, firm or studio. I’m not sure why so many firms haven’t really figured that out. (Maybe it’s because there seems to be an endless supply of businesses out there that don’t know any better and fall into the “market specialist” trap.)
Know-how and the ability to do do the same thing over and over and over again with a consistent level of performance is great if you’re assembling widgets in a production plant, or if you’re processing insurance claims. It’s also great if you’re a cashier at Wal-Mart or a bean counter on a farm or an auto mechanic or maybe even a cosmetic surgeon. It isn’t so great when your job is to help your client stand out and be noticed. When your job is to help them get curb appeal, or sex appeal, or whatever kind of appeal. Why? Because when the quality and effectiveness of your work depend on your ability to continually re-invent both your visual style and your copywriting style in order to enhance the way that your clients interact with the public, you cannot get sucked into a cycle of derivative repetition.
It doesn’t really matter how many brochures for hotels or hospitals or car dealerships, or home builders you’ve designed. If that is primarily what you do, if that is primarily what you have been doing for the last few years, you’re already on auto-pilot. You are simply serving the same dish over and over again to a different clientelle. It may have been the best dish in the world once, but now that everyone’s had a taste, it’s as good as dead.
And there is absolutely no value in that. None. Zip. Nada.
And shame on your clients for not knowing any better.
When it comes to businesses whose job it is to develop effective creative, what you want them to specialize in isn’t your industry or business. What you want them to specialize in is asking the right questions. Having the ability to immerse themselves into your world. Quickly understanding what your strengths and weaknesses are. Translating what makes you unique and relevant into ideas and campaigns that will actually generate business for you. And doing so with panache and skill, and razor-sharp precision.
Trust me when I tell you that the last thing you need is a brochure or catalog or website that is almost indistinguishable from your competitors’.
That should be a no-brainer, but not everyone gets it.
I guess maybe the reason why this post may have turned into a rant is that seeing bad print ads, boring catalogs and poorly designed websites makes me sad. No… it makes me angry. Well… both. And here’s why:
I just went into a fantastic restaurant last week and finally discovered how great it was. I mean… I LOVE it. The food, the service, the setting – the price even – are all great. But it took me two years to finally try it out it because its print ads and website SUCK. I knew where it was. I had an understanding of what it did. I drove by it several times per week. But its marketing actually made me put off going there.
Let me say this again: Its marketing (print ads) were so bad, that they actually turned me off from the place.
That’s pretty bad.
The lesson: Average websites, business cards, catalogs, brochures, event posters, press releases, packaging, print ads, radio ads and TV ads can and do actually hurt businesses. Bad ones can even kill businesses before they ever have a chance to get off the ground.
There are several business like this in my zipcode: Great little businesses. Remarkable in many ways. In spite of the great WOM they generate, their lousy ads put people off. Which makes me wonder – You can sue a doctor, a plumber or a lawyer for negligence, but you can’t sue a Marketer for hurting their clients by creating crappy ads and boring websites? Tsssk.
Marketing, PR, Advertising and Branding professionals who produce boring cookie-cutter work and proclaim themselves “nitch” marketers or “specialty” marketers very often end up hurting their clients. And silly hypothetical lawsuits aside, that is something worth getting angry about. Very angry.
So the point of this post is this: Next time you’re in the market for a new website, a new brochure, a new print ad or a new marketing campaign, think twice before hiring the guy who has done the exact same type of work for at least a dozen clients in your industry. Yeah, he may have “experience” with your market, but experience working with your competitors is completely irrelevant in this line of work. Chances are that he won’t contribute anything remarkable to your brand, and that isn’t good.
Some of the most brilliant and effective marketing-related work I have seen in my short career has come from project teams with broad market experience rather than deep experience in a specific field. We aren’t talking about Sales management here. This is a completely different kind of animal – one fed by a cross-pollination of ideas and market cultures, combined with an eagerness to discover and assimilate every aspect of the client and his/her universe.
Cross-pollination of styles and ideas and cultures. Fresh points of view. Excitement. Those are the things you should be looking for in a Marketing firm. Great work doesn’t come from having spent twenty years doing the exact same thing over and over again. It comes from having spent twenty years producing great, original, groundbreaking, exciting work across a BROAD range of industries and markets.
It comes from not having allowed yourself to get pigeon-holed into a single industry.
I once worked for a company whose engineers and sales people had been trying to solve a problem for close to thirty years. These were smart people. No one in their industry had as much experience as they did. Not collectively or individually. They were their industry’s heart and soul. Yet, they could not solve this problem… and they had all but given up on ever solving it.
Then they hired a marketing guy with zero engineering skills, and almost no experience with their industry. One day, he tackled their problem by asking a simple question: “Hey, why don’t we try doing XYZ?”
Lo and behold, XYZ worked.
Thirty years and all of the experience in the world: Zero.
New guy with a fresh outlook: Score.
Remarkable, groundbreaking and enormously successful campaigns usually come from new guys with fresh outlooks – not the old guys who’ve been sitting at the same desk, talking to the same people, and parking their car in the same spot for thirty years.
I won’t go as far as to say that industry-specific experience is overrated, but… well… in some cases – like selecting a marketing firm – yeah,it kind of is.
Have a great Monday, everyone. 😉
One great example of why industry-specific experience is overrated is Lou Gerstner. He turned around IBM in the early 90’s. Before that, he worked at RJR Nabisco. What could the computer industry which is so geeky specific have in common with tobacco? Or biscuits?
The big reason you get this inordinate demand by employers for experience is that they want to play it safe. In a previous lifetime, it was okay to learn on the job. You’d stay with a company for life and they wanted you to grow with them.
In today’s environment, almost all projects are under the gun of immediate release. We have no time for a learning curve, proclaim employers. We can’t take a chance to see if you can come up to speed. Of course, the ridiculous part about that is they’d be the first to tell you that things are changing so fast that plans are constantly under revision (if they bother planning.)
If they were 100% honest, they’d actually admit that they too don’t really know what they’re doing, and they’re inventing it on the fly. So why can’t you be part of that “creativity” too?
Thinking again about Lou Gerstner of IBM vs. Nabisco, I’m reminded of the saying “Computer chips? Potato chips? They’re all chips!” (It’s also why I left engineering which is way too strictly left brain for marketing.)
Great comment, Glenn. I love it. 😀
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