The New PIN Code.

If you're like me, when you're in need of cash in the middle of a busy day you're not all that picky about where you get it. My eyes scan the horizon for three simple letters: A-T-M. I don't much care about the brand and color scheme that surround the cash machine: whether it's Chase or Bank of America or People's Bank or HSBC doesn't really concern me. All I know is, when I punch in the right set of numbers, money comes out and I'm on my way. And while this cavalier approach to personal bank interaction works out pretty well, it also provides an unflattering metaphor about the relationship most of us have with ad agencies.

Often during my workshops, I'll quiz a group of digital sellers about the agencies they call on regularly. I ask about the agency's mission, the key selling points on which it pitches new business. I ask about its operating principles and values. And I'm also curious about the quality and duration of its relationships with key accounts: are they fresh? healthy? aging? troubled? Most of the time these questions are met with embarrassed silence and averted eyes. Because far too often the agency is nothing more to us than an anonymous ATM machine. Pay no attention to the brand or the color palette: just punch in your numbers and wait for your cash.

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The truth is that when you call on an ad agency, you are really selling to two businesses. Yes, it's ultimately the client's money that's being spent, but it's foolish to overlook the business objectives of the customer's agent -- the agency. The shops you call on are businesses in and of themselves; they struggle with self-identity, strive to build brand cultures, try to motivate their people, and look for competitive advantage over their other agencies. But do we take any of that into account as we're considering our approach? Or are we just punching buttons?

Here's a simple quiz to underscore my point. Consider five top agencies: Starcom, Digitas, Universal McCann, PhD and OMD. In their mission statements, one talks about "smart analytics combined with world class technology;" another points to "a culture of thought leadership, creativity and innovation;" one is all about "curiosity;" one says "experience design is the future;" and the final one says it is "an integrated agency with a brand core." Could the members of your sales team collectively match each agency to its statement of values? In this blog, I've taken agencies to task for not stressing their own values enough. But I have to think that with just a little digging -- with a little curiosity of his own -- a given seller could know far more about the shops he calls on, increasing his own value and personal brand at the same time.

The most common complaint I hear from sellers about agencies is their tendency to commoditize the sales offerings, to take a simplistic, one-dimensional view of what sellers have to offer. The shoe may not feel especially comfortable on the other foot, but there's little doubt that it fits.