Earned media is good, but ads are the missing piece in agencies’ self-promotional puzzle

—When agencies create ads to build their own brand, they get to show their true capabilities, free from obstacles like excessive testing and overly cautious clients, says Eric Blais—

It’s usually the last thing agencies and their clients do before launching an ad campaign: issuing a press release in the hope that the work gets picked up by trade publications.

If the campaign is particularly newsworthy or controversial, it might also receive coverage from mainstream media. This coverage can sometimes be detrimental to the brand, and even its sales (e.g. Bud Light’s association with Dylan Mulvaney). But when the coverage is positive, it benefits the brand (e.g., Wendy’s and Dove briefly going grey after Lisa LaFlamme’s dismissal) and can greatly amplify the impact of paid advertising.

Even if you don’t have control over the message, earned media provides a strong return on investment, as long as you successfully pitch your story to reporters and editors. Professional services firms love favourable earned media that puts their brand in a positive light.

But if you do want tighter control of the narrative, you can always pay for sponsored content. Both options work well as either a standalone tactic or as part of an integrated marketing-communications plan.

However, many of these firms—including law, accounting, and consulting firms—regularly advertise in business and trade publications to enhance their brand’s profile with prospective clients. They invest not only in promoting themselves, but also in defining a unique brand promise that sets them apart from competitors.

Which brings us back to advertising agencies. It’s challenging to find business-to-business advertising campaigns by and for advertising agencies. Some agencies do pay for ads, but they tend to be one-off, tactical ads rather than ongoing commitments to brand building. They buy ads in trade publications to recognize clients, boast about winning awards, or bid farewell to agency founders upon retirement. (And before I go on, yes I am writing this for a trade publication; but no this was not their idea, it was entirely my own.)

What we don’t see much of anymore are classic house ads like Young & Rubicam’s 1966 “Backbone” ad (top right). I have a personal fondness for it, perhaps because it’s where I began my career 40 years ago. Isn’t it peculiar that those who extol the merits of advertising engage in so little of it themselves?

Some argue that B2B advertising is less effective or necessary for building brands and businesses compared to “lower funnel” business development activities focused on conversion. If this is true, wouldn’t the same be the case for other professional services firms?

Or perhaps there’s something deeper at play.

While the work done for clients is essential, what better way for prospective clients to assess an agency’s skills than by assessing an ad campaign about the agency? Such a campaign showcases the agency’s strategic and creative thinking in its purest form.

In addition to driving business leads and attracting top talent, an ad agency’s own ad campaign demonstrates its strategic and creative prowess. It provides evidence of the agency’s talent applied to its own brand-building efforts, showcasing what’s possible when the agency is free from the obstacles that many claim hinder breakthrough and effective advertising, such as excessive creative testing and lack of courage.

You may be wondering if my firm practices what it preaches. We certainly do. When we launched the business in 2004, we ran full-page ads in Marketing Magazine (right). We also ran an ad in The Globe and Mail‘s Report on Business for six months on the weekly Persuasion page.

When I asked one of our first clients, Sleep Country Canada, how they had heard about us, they immediately attributed it to seeing our ad.

Not all agencies, particularly start-ups, have the financial resources to invest in advertising. However, it is still surprising to see many new digital agencies announcing their launch on LinkedIn without even having a functional website. It’s as if the cobbler’s children have no shoes.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.com

Eric Blais