Any decent business can get customers – but great brands succeed at winning cult-like followings.

Accept that there are hundreds of talented advertising agencies out there that can easily drive more customers to your door through age-old marketing techniques. But, what most of them can’t do is win you the kind of deep affinity consumers have towards the world’s most profitable brands.

That kind of brand affinity doesn’t start with better advertising.

It starts from within.

And that’s why Cult is decidedly not an advertising agency. We are an engagement agency. Our business is not customer acquisition, it’s customer advocacy.

That’s also why you — the bold and courageous CMO — must be aware of something that professionals in our industry don’t like to talk about. There’s a dirty little secret in advertising: Great ads win short-term sales and awards but they don’t win brand affinity.

Think I’m crazy?

Here’s a chart that shows the average account billings of a typical ad agency client over time. Notice how the revenue goes down as the relationship progresses?

Why is that?

At the outset of a new relationship with an agency, excitement is high. As a client, you’re excited by the new thinking and ideas, romanced by the clever creative, and convinced by the intelligent pitches. But research shows that agency billings decline over time as advertising investment delivers an increasingly diminishing return. Then comes the agency review process which is the equivalent of speed-dating, and… you get the picture?

I’m not pretending to have the ultimate answer; But you need to know that our industry has recognized for years that the agency business model is flawed. Being the entrepreneur I am, where others see a problem, I see an opportunity. So, we are on a mission at Cult to try to fix things instead of just complain about them. And guess what? Brands have started knocking on our door.

You need to know that our industry has recognized for years that the agency business model is flawed.

For two years, my close friend suffered nagging lower back pain. He told me that doctor after doctor prescribed painkillers and physio therapy. I suggested he seek out a real specialist. He did. A rheumatologist who, quite frankly, told him he was otherwise healthy but should lose some weight and his pain would disappear. Say what?!

Not the pill he went looking for, but definitely the one he had to swallow. And – surprise – it worked.

Stop Advertising Malpractice

Here’s the way I look at things: Blindly prescribing what is essentially the same solution (advertising) to different client problems time and again is equivalent to malpractice in other professions.

Be aware: This kind of malpractice usually manifests itself in cute ads that are funny or mind-glowingly creative, but do nothing to build true engagement or affinity. I see these ads and often think that the people who are really laughing are the agency execs who sold the idea through. Cha-ching!

This kind of malpractice usually manifests itself in cute ads that are funny or mind-glowingly creative, but do nothing to build true engagement or affinity.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re in business to make money too.

But we’re not about spending your money on media-driven campaigns. We seek to solve real problems, and often that’s not done with a cute or clever ad, or a simple website or mobile app. Sometimes those things are part of the answer, but they’re not the answer.

This has to stop.

We owe it to our profession to teach clients that they hired us as experts to help them solve real problems or to create something great. We cannot continue to jump into communication ideas without first diagnosing the real problem and objective – the “thinking” work that our industry often has to give away for free in order to get the “doing” work.

Thinking is worth so much more.

And that’s what Cult is really good at; Solving real problems and helping clients achieve true goals.

Sometimes those solutions involve better advertising, or a website, or a whatever – but many times, it involves a change of culture or behaviour from within. Things that an “advertising” agency can’t see; Or maybe things a client organization won’t readily accept. The problem is, most clients go looking for that magic pill called advertising.

Sure, you may have good ideas and are confident about what ails your organization. But those ideas are usually birthed within the organization who has invested great effort into solving their problems, but can’t see the forest for the trees. They need us to be bold. Further, they need us to be confident and professional as experts that will not accept giving advice or ideas without truly knowing the whole story.

I’m here to say that the customer is not always right. A doctor wouldn’t accept a self-diagnosis. Nor will we. Would you ever walk into your lawyer’s office and tell them how to do their job?

No, you wouldn’t. So, why does this happen so often in our industry?

Because we let it.

We’ve got to stop this madness. Great brands ask us for help and listen to and respect our point of view and the methodology we follow to solve their problems. That’s not to disrespect a client’s point of view, but I think that brands need agencies who will tell them – and do for them – what they really need in order to succeed. And that’s not always an easy pill to swallow.

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