I love Lucky Generals’ Andy Nairn. He talks a lot of sense. So if you didn’t see his Campaign piece on The Power and Pitfalls of Purpose, then do check it out. 

Or rather, don’t – because I’m about to plagiarise the living shit out of it. 

Reason being, his reflections on brand ‘purpose’ apply just as much to agencies – especially in the current market, where chunky new-business wins are dwindling and standout, great briefs and decent margin can feel elusive.

1. Be true

As Andy said of brands, it really should go without saying that your agency’s purpose must be true, otherwise it will age faster than a Boris Johnson promise. 

But alongside the need for truth, it should also be ownable. 

I recently asked my LinkedIn network for examples of agencies that talk explicitly about doing ‘good’. I stopped counting at 80. All very laudable, but not a rich source of standout. 

It’s good to be good, but you’ll do more good if you’re different.  

2. Be humble

Just as many agency purpose statements fail the ‘could the opposite ever be true?’ test, they also often lack the self-awareness to express why anyone should care. 

Agencies love to talk-up ‘creativity’ and ’the work’, but clients need to know what problem you solve. Heaven forbid you talk about benefits. 

No wonder IPA president Nigel Vaz is focusing on outcomes – which itself brings agency leaders to a tricky crossroads

3. Be specific

Bravo if you’ve got something real, unusual and client-centric. Now it’s time to prove it. 

Facing unprecedented challenges, clients have changed how they build trust in you. A slick pitch with a great idea is no longer enough. Your agency’s actions demonstrate expertise just as much as what you say and the work you do. 

I recently heard Axe / Lynx’s Global Brand Director Caroline Gregory describe what made their transformation successful – in short, they did more than they said. Less talk, more action. 

Case in point, she was speaking at a BBD Perfect Storm event on marketing to men. Nice event idea, but better still that the agency’s New Macho division is a leading voice in that debate. 

4. Be surprising

Remember Bill Bernbach’s quote that “a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money”? Every application of your purpose is a moment of truth. 

One of the great agency self-delusions (and there are loads) is that you ‘challenge’ your clients. Declining a 14-way pitch with a budget of tuppence isn’t a challenge, it’s self-respect. 

So how could your purpose inform a genuinely principled stance with a client? Not flogging fags and guns is easy, but when might standing your ground be surprising? 

5. Be distinctive

The way you reflect your purpose also needs to stand out. It has to inform behaviour that’s different or memorable. 

Claiming to be good, generous or progressive soon sounds flimsy without teachable moments to counter people’s natural cynicism. 

When I first heard about Brighton agency Propellernet’s commitment to ‘Make Life Better’, I rolled my eyes. Then I met their CEO Nikki Gatenby and heard how they literally make dreams come true (no, seriously). Check out her book, Superengaged. 

6. Be committed 

As Michael Caine said in Get Carter (ask your dad), “this is full-time for me”. You can’t have purpose half-heartedly. 

No shit, right? Well, you’d be surprised how easy it is to convince yourself that a worthy initiative will be the start of something beautiful. But you don’t have to be an evil bastard for BAU to get in the way. 

Also take care that your personal passion makes sense for the business. I once worked for a CEO who was big on saving the oceans, but it wasn’t baked into the agency’s strategy, so it felt like a distraction. 

7. Be careful

Finally, be ready to listen and improve. Let’s be honest, agencies talk a lot of bollocks, so don’t be surprised if your people and clients don’t buy-in straight away. 

So stay the course – iterate, don’t panic. Just like when you’re in a new-business lull – don’t rush to bin your strategy and chase briefs that don’t fit. 

* * * 

Andy’s piece rightly emphasises that purpose can be a powerful weapon for brands. He ends by unloading a clip-full of munitions-based imagery to gun-down the risks. So do read it, because agencies also need to avoid shooting themselves in the foot. 

Also think about your agency’s entire customer experience. Just as for many brands, agencies face oversupply, little differentiation and low barriers for clients to switch. 

Your only antidote is to focus – decide what problem you solve, then prove it in everything you do, not just everything you say.

Image: Telegraph