Why Are We Defensive As An Industry?

Imagine needing a good accountant and you’re in the early stages of researching the right one to hire. It’s a big decision and you’re nervous: the tax people are commencing an audit. Your choice of an accounting firm is going to have a big impact on your business and what comes next. It’s not a life or death thing, but the stakes are pretty high.

You’re deep in the search, now, and you start to notice similar phrasing everywhere and you start to pay closer attention. Over and over again you come across phrases like this:

  • We really listen.
  • We don’t miss deadlines.
  • We won’t charge you more than we agreed.
  • We are actually experienced and we know what we’re talking about.

You’ve seen enough by now and you pause the search for a minute and just sit and think about the industry as a whole. You might say something like this:

The accounting space seems to have a problem. They sound like shysters. If I didn’t know better, they seem to just assume that I need the same thing that their other clients get, they aren’t very organized or disciplined, you can’t trust the estimates they lure you in with, and maybe there’s this infestation and accounting firms aren’t all that qualified. Weird, really. And a whole lot more defensive than I thought. So I guess the first thing I need to do is weed out all the pretenders and then choose from the small group of actually competent advisors.

But the truth is that you’d never see that if you were looking at various websites for accountants. Or engineers, architects, attorneys, or any of the other professional services.

But you would see it if you were looking for a dev shop, marketer, advertiser, or creative.

Why? Because a chunk of the folks who are practicing their profession in that space aren’t sure—themselves—that they are delivering value. I’d posit that it comes from a combination of things:

  • The barrier to entry is low and anybody can do it, which means there are a lot of pretenders who have no idea what they are really doing. They’ve never even begun to look into the scientific underpinnings of persuasion or behavior change or consumption habits or measurable brand preferences.
  • The marketplace itself isn’t too sure about what we do. How weird is it, really, that the first thing that gets cut in a downturn is “marketing”—the thing that you’d think is the most needed?
  • Why doesn’t the government or industry trade groups have enforcement mechanisms against bad actors? Maybe because they don’t think what we do matters all that much? There are no standards bodies with any sort of teeth.

Exploring This Further

I saw a tweet from Derek Walker the other day:

It’s a shame how hard advertising professionals “think” we have to work to convince clients we know what we’re talking about. No other service provider I work with expends so much time, energy and effort to prove their value. Advertising must be broken.”

And then Jeremy Taylor made some really interesting observations (I’m paraphrasing), including this one about our conflicting claims in proposals:

We have won a lot of awards, but that’s now how we’ll do your work. It’s about effectiveness and not rewards.

His explanation?

Maybe far-fetched, but I think as a sentiment it touches a nerve with many agency people. There is an element of embarrassment and discomfort about what they do for a living and uncertainty that what they are doing is really good for the world.

Why? Advertising people are rarely found on the right-wing of the political spectrum, and often feel uneasy about naked capitalism. This immediately puts them on the defensive about what they do for a living. Perhaps it even helps explain the rise in the focus on corporate and brand purpose, which has the effect of diluting the raw sales function of advertising?

Survey results are important to anyone who works in advertising and marketing. Advertising consistently scores very poorly as a ‘trustworthy’ profession in surveys, along with people such as journalists and politicians. This is perhaps another reason for advertising professionals to feel slightly unworthy. But then again, lawyers also appear near the bottom of those surveys, and as noted above it never seems to worry the big legal partnerships and corporations.

Fixing This

That subhead phrase I just wrote (“fixing this”) is kind of false advertising (here we go again) because I’m not sure I have the answer. But I will say this, as a partial antidote for your specific situation:

Quit being so needy and defensive…but don’t overpromise, either…and that combination of quiet confidence might just set you apart from the industry’s addiction to embarrassing defensiveness.

This is what I saw on an agency website recently:


The agency that will change your mind about agencies. No fuzz. No panic. No scope creep. No missed deadlines. No disappointing results after months of work.

No jargon. No overcharges. No BS.

Let’s prove this firm wrong.

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