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The real reason ad agencies focus on “engagement”

With the exception of large and most successful companies with breakout products, ad agencies loathe promising success in growing sales. Ad agencies, web shops, and other related firms like SEO and copywriting agencies can’t guarantee real success because they have no control over the products they’re advertising.

I say “real success” because we can guarantee you lots of other things through fraud and automated bots. You want 10,000 followers? I can deliver that for about $20 while charging you $200. We can guarantee traffic, page followers, retweets, comments, whatever you like. But it’ll all be bot-driven. Thus the success is only in the number, not the useful reach companies might expect, which is an increase in sales.

For most agencies, the clients they serve probably offer ho-hum products or services. They may be important to a modest group of customers but are unlikely to ignite the world in their favor. Often this begets ho-hum advertising, even in the rare instance the agency can be breathtakingly creative. As a result, nothing dramatic can be expected the way most people hope.

Most small businesses without the budget to purchase broad recognition through billboards, TV, and radio have to pin all their hopes on going viral. That any day now the Facebook post just made will be shared by everyone and everyone will see us and read about us and buy or donate to us.

To be successful on our end and take a company to new heights, the product being advertised needs to be great and beyond useful to people’s everyday lives. This automatically omits most nonprofits, which are beholden to people’s goodwill and spare change.

The result is we, as an agency, work in industries that are declining or razor-thin with margins and innovation.

It feels like I’m passing blame and not taking responsibility. But there’s only so many conversations we can have about why adding a video to the homepage or a page of photos to a site isn’t going to change anything. Hardly a day goes by someone doesn’t ask me, “What if we changed our site to this?” Those kinds of conversations can be useful but are usually borne out of panic that a product or service isn’t performing well. The truth is usually much blunter: no one really cares about the product.

This is anathema to client relations, however. The results must surely be because the website lacks a photo page or that one customer who didn’t bother to read what they were typing needs it to be simpler. We often spend time producing a page or fulfilling a request we know isn’t going to get any traction. We try, though.

Agencies and freelancers should focus on being aggressively creative and documenting their suggestions, even if they are rejected. The case study will be useful later. And for the agencies with enough money to fulfill their needs, be equally creative in finding ways to say “No, this doesn’t add value.”

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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