Clients Demanding Category Experience Is A Red Herring

Imagine how you’d feel if you were going into hospital for an operation and the surgeon had only ever assisted in operations before? Or, if you go and get legal advice from a commercial solicitor only to find that their specialism is family law.

If you’re at all like me, you’d be more than a little uncomfortable. And that’s how clients sometimes feel when they’re looking for category experience within the agencies they’re considering.

So why does asking for category experience often not get you an agency who will deliver for you? And what are you really after when asking for category experience?

The 4 reasons why we think clients should refrain from requesting examples or case histories from specific categories:

1 – Right category, wrong individual/s

It is often the case that the few people who actually worked on those cases still work in that agency today. And if they did, they would probably be roped in to help pull the pitch together, but the chances of them being assigned to work on that project (or have much time available to chip in on it) are certainly not guaranteed.

2 – Outdated experience

There is a massive assumption that case studies and strategies from up to a decade ago still have relevance in fast paced and rapidly changing market categories. Clients rarely question how long ago the agency worked on the category in question. Hypothetically, Samsung may be seduced by an agency who claim to have done work for Nokia. But if it was 15 years ago when smart phones didn’t even exist and consumer behaviour was far more rudimentary, would it really count as a jewel in that agency’s crown?

3 – Surface, not grassroots, knowledge

Some agencies also have the gumption to claim category experience based on it pitching for (but not winning) the category in question. That’s like claiming you are a TV singing star, but in actual fact you were only ever in the initial knock-out rounds for X-Factor. Granted, you learn a lot in preparing for a pitch. You learn far more, however, from actually having to do the work.

4 – Experience by association

Next on the list of offensive practices is the fluffing up of agency credentials by including experience its sister companies have earned. That’s fine if the actual human beings in those sister companies will be part of the ongoing team should the pitch be won… and fraud if not.

Here are the 6 things we think clients really want when they ask for experience:

young kids dressed up as if for work as a doctor, builder, businessman, chef

1 – People with real insights into the key category issues

This does not mean assigning a junior person to the proposed team who managed the finer executional details of the category relevant project. Clients are looking to learn from masters, not people who have been apprentices or passengers on the journey.

(More on how agencies work: The Difference Between Agencies and Consultancies)

2 – People who have recent experience

Many of the masters, unfortunately, have been busy with other categories recently. What they remember may no longer hold true today. There should definitely be a premium on experience that’s less than 5 years old.

3 – People with the keys to success

Just because an agency or agency person worked on a success in the category doesn’t mean his or her individual work was good work. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that valuable lessons weren’t learned even if the product was a flop. The best people are the ones who can say with integrity, “If there’s one, and only one thing you have to know to succeed in this category; it’s this…”

4 – People who protect proprietary information

While clients are eager to tap into experiences from other products in the category, it should be a warning signal to them when agency people blab about confidential information from a previous client in a pitch or even once a pitch is won. In this case, who can blame them for thinking that if you can’t be trusted with information from a former client, how can you be trusted with theirs?

5 – People who can solve the problems clients are likely to face

We believe this is the most vital of them all. It doesn’t matter which category the agency draws from, but if they can show that a product outside the category faced similar challenges and/or similar audiences – and they found relevant solutions that could carry over into their category, then technically, the client should value the agency’s non-category experience just as highly (or more?!) than an agency who has worked in the category.

(As evidenced in our post on The Cross Category Ingredients Trend)

6 – People who speak the truth

Of course it can work out that a client selects an agency based on a stretched truth about category experience and things work out fine even after the client recognises the white lies. However, even this rosy scenario leaves room for the client to be sceptical of what the agency claims in other areas. An agency forthright enough to place clear boundaries around what the team does and doesn’t know when it speaks with the client about its experience won’t always get into the pitch or win the business. It will, however, establish itself as a credible and honourable potential partner. And that’s the kind of partner the best clients value the most. Surely clients want to work with agencies who have people that prize integrity above all else?


If you like our straight talking about how to think about and engage innovation agencies, you might be interested in our article on how Close Innovation Agency Partnerships Can Limit Your NDP.