Agencies all try to have a point of difference. A special sauce that make them different from the other guys. So processes are invented, systems designed, designs designed, buzzwords coined, tag lines generated, ethos written, and so on and so forth. Then these agencies, most agencies, walk into meeting touting their special sauce as the one true way. The answer, of course, couldn't be Drama Told Excellently it's all about Excellency Through Drama. And for all of the differences agencies purport to have, most of the output looks dramatically the same.
Why is that? These agency positioning aren't bullshit, they're pulled from somewhere. But they also don't mean all that much because agencies are willing to undercut their brand for their bottom line. As long as it looks good on a slide in the next pitch an agency positioning doesn't seem to have much impact on the agency's business.
So then what differentiates agencies? If finely-tuned positioning don't mean anything what makes one agency produce work that is better than the rest. I'd argue it's a matter of taste.
And taste, put simply, is the barometer for quality of the work that makes it out the door.
It's taste in the creative work. Knowing that the audience is the customer, not the client. Knowing that people don't respond to a litany of bullet points. Knowing that the things that people respond to in popular culture are the same things they respond to in ads. (This does not mean stealing from or copying popular culture, it means striving to put things into the work that people can connect to the way they do popular culture.)
It means having an opinion on what makes good creative work and what makes bad creative work. It means saying no a thousand times because it will hurt the work or the client. It means saying yes when new ideas are exposed. This is simple Advertising 101 shit. Stuff that should be baked into the creative process but agencies seem to forget or ignore.
But taste has to extend beyond creative work. Because creative doesn't work in a vacuum. Most agency creative departments could churn out at least better than average work given total control.
However, there's a big ecosystem in any agency that has to carry the burden of taste alongside the creative department. And that looks different for every department. But the overall goal is to keep the agency's product intact which means the core creative product needs to be spot on. It means having morals as an agency. Knowing when to say no to client requests. Knowing to not prioritize short term goals over longevity.
That's different than flat out refusing business, but it's doing business in a way that respects people first, the client second, and pleasant relationships third. A really good example of this in how Ally & Gargano approached how they'd approach advertising cigarettes.
Now taste is any easy thing to start with but not an easy thing to keep. It takes work every day to remind yourself what you're working for and working towards. It means always, always taking a introspective look at the things you're about to release on the world. The things you're about to sell to a client.
And the nicest part about taste is that it's not something that's concrete. Good taste means something different to everyone. So as long as everyone agrees on what taste, either individual or as an agency, means there's plenty of room for difference among agencies.
But even with so many different definitions of taste it'd be hard to argue that advertising has much of it at all right now.
RELATED: This the contract between DDB and Avis on how their advertising would be run. It'd be nice if this kind of client relationships came back into fashion.