AdAge agency guy gets beaten by Coffee Shop Kid, co-founder of Huhcorp

First I read this and then I wonder why it all sounds so familiar. Huhcorp! That’s why it sounded like a familiar tune to me. Funny story (when you really think about it) because when I was in college, I started my first agency. Not as successful as my third one but we had a few clients. Sold some websites. And really, truly, didn’t know enough of what we were doing. The upside? Neither did any other web design and development firm back in the crazy days of 1998. Sure, there were some that launched back then and still do business today. Do they operate the same? Does the stack of services work similar? Nope, nowhere close. These days, you’ve got wordpress, you’ve got facebook fan pages, twitter feeds, social toolsets, SEO analysis dashboards…everything has evolved. The agencies that I knew about, then, and are still around today are very different animals in how they work, what they put together and more.

Coffee shop kids can do a lot with limited cost, budget and in short run cycles

One a top 100 interactive agency, TeamInteract’s domain was let go and bought by some kind of scammer. (They were huge in the early to mid 90’s). Zentropy was also republished by a domain name squatter (they were also huge in the late 90’s). Avenue A is now not even hosted. TrafficLeader’s domain just redirects to Marchex, instead of being a site by itself (though to be fair, TrafficLeader was never a full service agency, just an SEO specialist firm).

Today’s coffee shop kid advertising agency could be the Autonomy of the 2020’s. You know Autonomy, the owners of Optimost, one of the most advanced, sophisticated and awesome multivariate testing platforms around. My ‘agency’ was the boutique kind. We made certain that we took work where we could add value and passed on other projects. This resulted in a great, niche business. From what I can see of the agency feedback at AdAge….and the limited review of the agency websites themselves, well, too many people are drinking their own Kool-Aid. In the agency business, to me, you’re only as good as your *next* big idea. Not your last, your most recent or your amazing portfolio of past projects. The new, new thing is what you’re selling and if we don’t believe you have your hands on the new, big shiny thing…you’re yesterday’s news. The Zentropy of today if you will.

The trick is to know somebody. Anybody will do but the best people to know are those that hired you before. They know what they bought, they know the value and they are your sales people. The referrals those past clients generate are priceless. Until we stopped, the referrals kept coming because A) we always had ideas for the future and B) the value we delivered was completely out of proportion to the cost. An agency sale is never about price if you pre-screen clients, it’s all about value. If you can deliver the best value, irregardless of price….a handful of clients turned ambassador will set your firm up for years.

Sometimes, online discourse misses the point of the topic. Half the commenters (go on, look) are from sour grape agency owners, reps or sales people that wish the coffee shop kid would go away, or that we had an accepted “ad agency bar exam” as if that would cull the weak from the herd. In this case, it’s a combination of changing factors, proliferation of easier and better tools and a rapidly developing market. The tools are there (Conductor, BrightEdge, Covario, SEOMoz, etc) for search, for SEM, social, email and display. More than a decade ago, a lot of this stuff was ‘arcane’ with no emerging standards or tools to facilitate the process. The first SEM automation tools for Goto (remember that?) were from companies like Did-it in New York and lacked much of the sophistication of today’s efrontier or Marin Software’s set of algorithms.

The world changes, the economy isn’t the same as it was and the old adage, ‘adapt or die’ comes to mind whilst reading some of these things. I’m excited about change, about the opportunity and about the industry as a whole. Every success is another opportunity to toast with your team, every defeat is an invaluable lesson to get better at what you do. Maybe these guys should be out re-assessing their business instead of complaining 😉 That’s what I’d do.