• Bill Petrie

Think Like an Ad Agency

Five Steps to Transform Your Business


We are all creatures of habit, which is why we routinely fall into, well, routines. As humans, we embrace the known for all manner of reasons: comfort, familiarity, laziness, and countless others. Because this is part of our overall condition, it permeates every aspect of our lives – including how we approach clients.

Think about it – we use the same introductory phrases, roll out tired case histories to prove our creativity, and pounce on anticipated questions with the subtlety of a college freshman swiping through Tinder. Occasionally, when there’s a significant opportunity, we will freshen up the way we tackle clients. However, if there’s a shred of honesty, the truth is that approaching clients differently than that of our competition is the exception, not the rule.

Before I go much further, let me be clear that I’m not advocating running a business like an updated version of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce from the marvelous show, Mad Men. While wearing snappy suits, chain-smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and having a stocked bar in every office on the 54th floor of Manhattan skyscraper would be quite the experience, it’s far more conducive to dramatic television than building a business. However, there are methods that ad agencies use to realize the highest return on client investment that can be applied to any business.

In the promotional products industry, distributors spend far too much time simply putting logos on merchandise and calling themselves marketers. This is an enormous problem – one that the supply chain stresses are only serving to exacerbate. However, of blaming lack of inventory, the competition, or other outside issues that lead to less-than-optimal sales results, leverage the following five steps – in order – to create magic for your clients:

  1. Define One Specific Purpose – simply put, the client objective must be something the effective use of promotional merchandise can achieve. In other words, if the client doesn’t have the budget necessary to use the proper promotional vehicle to achieve their goal, then what you’re offering isn’t the solution. Work with your client to clearly and precisely define a goal that can be both measured and achieved. An example might be, “increase retention rates by 20% by the end of 2022 through the creation of an employee recognition program” or “increase inbound leads by 15% by June 30, 2022, using targeted promotional marketing to new audiences.”

  2. Define the Audience – this is a critical step that can neither be overlooked nor bungled. Communicate with your client to delineate their ideal customer into an understandable description. Then, break that narrative into consumable categories that will guide you to the best merchandise vehicle for the message and, even further, the time and manner to distribute the promotional products to ensure it is as impactful as possible.

  3. Exemplify the Client’s Brand Voice – many companies misunderstand what construes a brand voice: it is not a color, logo, font, design style, or tagline. The brand voice – the identity of a brand – is the story. In other words, it’s not what the client does or how they do it. It’s the why they do what they do. This is the most challenging step as clients are generally far more comfortable explaining their what and how. Work with the client to ensure you’re presenting their why to their audience. Remember, if their audience doesn’t know why your client does something better than their competition, they will never believe they can or will.

  4. Develop the Plan – this is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. You know the goal, who the target is, and how to communicate the “why” of the client. Now it’s time to showcase your creativity to bring the audience and client’s voice together. This is where most have great temptation to do what they’ve always done. Instead of showing the same merchandise solution you’ve always offered, take time to truly think about the type of products that will not only connect with the audience but will move them to the desired action of accomplishing the specific purpose. Don’t let fear stop you from being creative.

  5. Execute – spoiler alert: this is where most of your competitors will start, and that’s both an enormous problem for them and an incredible advantage for you. Now that you’ve arrived here by following the first four steps in order, you’ll find that you will have many more ideas, and it will be much easier to get them approved by the client. The purpose, audience, brand voice, and plan will reinforce the validity of the creative and how best to execute the delivery of the merchandise.

Thinking like an ad agency doesn’t have to be something reserved for the likes of Roger Sterling and Don Draper. This five-step approach is not only manageable; it’s logical. Think of these as stepping stones of the brand river you need to cross: each must be placed at the proper time and in the correct place in order for you to stay dry during your crossing. By employing the ad agency approach, a business can transform into a creative powerhouse that creates long-term client loyalty by doing work that matters.

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