Advertising agency websites: Digital masturbation

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One of the fundamental aspects of web marketing is that you need to understand your buyers before you create any content. Who are you trying to reach? What are the market problems of the buyer persona that you are targeting? What resonates with your buyer?

David Koopmans asks: "How good are agency websites?"

Well, I'm a representative of an ad agency buyer. When I was VP marketing at several NASDAQ traded companies I controlled a multi-million dollar budget and purchased services from agencies. Now, on the speaking circuit, I am often asked for agency recommendations by potential clients looking for someone to work with.

My answer to David is that most agency sites suck. As David suggests, part of the reason is the heavy use of flash and a focus on "cutting edge creative."

I would add that agency sites are very light on compelling content. Another observation is that many agency sites use the same tired and worn ways to show that they are "hip" – you know, cool introductions featuring a stylized version of their logo; fun, often black-and-white photos of the principles with funky stuff in the shots (fishing poles and Labrador retrievers are good for this purpose). When everyone does flash and everyone does logo gyrations and when everyone does funky photos it ceases to be hip.

I am drawing no conclusions on the ten sites below. However as a way to show a few examples, and to be as fair as possible, below are the top ten advertising agency brands in the United States as ranked by Advertising Age together with a link to each site.

You be the judge…
1. JWT
2. McCann Erickson
4. Leo Burnett
5. Ogilvy & Mather
6. DDB
7. Y&R Advertising
8. Grey
9. Saatchi & Saatchi
10. DraftFCB

Based on what I see on the majority of advertising agency sites (I've checked out hundreds), which in my opinion is nothing more than digital masturbation, I advise people not to trust an advertising agency to build their site. While some advertising agencies may build great sites, the majority fail big time and their clients suffer as a result. To be fair, one exception is that an agency may be the best bet for certain purpose-built micro-sites focused on a particular campaign.

Here are two reasons why I tell people to avoid the agencies, together with details on why I feel companies should avoid these approaches.

Flaw # 1 > Ad agencies focus on aesthetics over information.

Advertising agencies try to convince clients to focus on the sizzle instead of the steak. Their advice is to pay more attention to colors and graphics than to the substance of the Web site: content. Often Ad agencies push distracting images or generic stock photos throughout a site and clunky Flash Video introductions or pop-ups on the homepage.

= Why marketers should avoid this:

Visitors who actually want to learn something aren't satisfied and sales are lost. The best Web sites are designed by marketers who have learned to think more like successful publishers: It is important to make a book or magazine readable, but not at the expense of providing something good to read. The Ad agency focus on style over substance is flawed. Imagine if Pulitzer Prizes were only given for design, usability, and functionality but not the actual content?

Flaw # 2 > Ad agencies focus on the wrong part of the sales cycle.

Ad agencies often design sites that feature slick, TV-influenced, one-way broadcast messages that feel like advertising. Ad agencies create sites as if they need to grab the attention of visitors for the first time. Many sites designed by Ad agencies sport all kinds of in-your-face images and messages designed to get you to pay attention.

= Why marketers should avoid this:

When a visitor gets to a Web site, you don't need to grab their attention; you already have it! Advertising agencies' strong focus on grabbing attention is rooted in print and TV advertising models, not a Web content-marketing and publishing model. The ad model is flawed, because on the Web, the challenge has shifted from grabbing attention to informing and educating your visitors through content. People who visit Web sites are often further along in the sales process. But most advertising people don't understand this and create ineffective sites as a result. People aren't looking for TV commercials on the Web, they are looking for content that helps them in some way.