Ad Agency Guide To Breaking In To New Categories

by Todd Knutson

Every ad agency wants to break into a new category. How do you do so when you don't have the experience? How do you avoid spending a great deal of money on a pitch that you have no chance of winning? Clive Maclean provides some answers to these questions. He has started and grown very successful agencies in both his native South Africa as well as the U.S. (You can find his blog here.)


Guest post by Clive Maclean:


Breaking into new categories can be a difficult and expensive task for many agencies. The current economic environment has made it even more difficult, as marketers look for partners who already have deep experience in their specific category. They do not have the time, money, or risk tolerance to take on a new agency lacking category experience, and show them the ropes. So how in the world do you get in and get new category experience if your agency cannot get a foot in the door in the first place?

Well, it’s not easy, however, here are a few tips that might help improve your chances:

  • Purchase an existing agency: The easiest way to break in to a category is to purchase an existing agency with both the experience and the clients to match. This gives you immediate credibility and critical mass.
  • Partner agency with category experience: While not ideal in the long term, if you need the capability immediately in order to address a current opportunity, then partnership may solve the problem.
  • Hire a team/individual with experience & relationships: Another approach is to identify and hire either a team or individual with both category experience AND a solid personal client relationship. (Category experience of one or two people is not sufficient on its own).  There must be a strong relationship that should at least give you a foot in the door, and some initial project opportunities.
  • Avoid attempting entry in a pitch environment: While nothing is impossible, my experience has taught me that formal shoot outs in a pitch environment is not a successful way to break in. Yes, on occasion a great idea or concept can pull you through, but know that the odds are ranked heavily against you.
  • Forget the category leader: The chances of ConAgra awarding you their flagship Healthy Choice brand, or BMW awarding you their account without any category experience is slim to none. Target smaller brands that are hungry to gain market share, more nimble and less risk averse. Another good idea is to target a smaller sub brand within a group of brands, and cut your teeth on it before moving up the ladder.
  • Consider analogous category experience: Take a look at the skill sets and techniques utilized by your agency on current client accounts. What other categories may require a similar skill set? Consider how to package your experience up in a way that will appeal to the new category prospect.
  • Proprietary tools, software, and widgets etc: If you have a truly proprietary tool or application that would add value to the new category prospect, you will probably have a good chance of getting them interested. Make sure you package the product up suitably to appeal to the new audience.
  • Research and homework: This approach requires you to invest a significant amount of your talent, time, and money doing your homework on the category. What you are hoping is that you are able to find actionable insights (not information) that the client may not currently be aware of.  Using these insights as the reason to secure a meeting, you then have the opportunity to demonstrate your value proposition and “Wow” them with your innovative ideas/solutions.

I hope you find these helpful…. So, the next time your creative director rushes up to you and says “We need to go after the personal watercraft category because I have deep experience and a great reel from my past agency!” take the time to consider the idea before reacting.

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