Be Honest With What You Do Best -- Pretending Is a Slippery Slope

03/26/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

I created a boutique communications agency five years ago. We promised to deliver service engagements that would be tailored to the specific needs of each and every one of our client brands. With this promise came a commitment to building an ecosystem of talent we could draw from -- individuals and companies with proven expertise in their specific disciplines. Fundamentally, we understood that no two brands were alike and no two clients had the same needs. We would customize.

In a sense we were building a virtual holding company -- one which, by definition, would always be evolving with best-in-class partners and newly discovered resources. It was time consuming, especially if we were to be refining the level of our talent capabilities ongoing. Our virtuality was not an agenda tied to pricing or overhead reduction. Ours was based on the intent to work differently -- in a tailored integrated way with cross-channel experts.

It's been an inspiring, challenging and enlightening experience. There is so much talent out there -- wonderful people capable of doing great work. We got to know senior folks opting for freelance gigs, independent agencies wanting work they'd normally not get a shot at, holding company specialty firms loving the chance to engage without silos.

Without exception, all were anxious to be part of a team where their expertise would be highly valued, where they'd get a proper seat at the table, where they'd be heard and have influence.

What became rather stunning was how often we met with firms claiming to have specific talents when they actually did not.

I lost track of how many solid PR firms were insisting they'd become social media experts; how many perfectly capable digital studios were pretending to be strategically anchored full service agencies; how many classic promotion shops had magically morphed into shopper marketing specialists without doing anything differently in their work; how many traditional media firms had somehow become the go-to-resource for SEO and behavioral analytics. The list goes on.

We've all heard the rhetoric.

Everything is now digital. Everything is now social. 360 is now Omni-Channel.

Real capability, genuine expertise is getting more and more difficult to find as agencies promise the latest shiny on-trend skill... and everyone joins in the chase for the money.
Lines of real skills are blurring.

An old client friend of mine wrote this comment to me in a recent email:

"The over-promise of digital as a marketing tool, like any emerging space or fast evolving space, is chock full of dilettantes and charlatans."

The skepticism and frustration is real. I sympathize. What's a marketer to do?

I am writing this to make a suggestion -- a bit of a plea. Agencies should be honest about what they do best. Pretending is a slippery slope.

If they have evolved their capabilities to offer more value, if they've acquired other talent to deliver differently, they should say so... when it's true. Marketers need specialists more than ever (both the traditional and the emerging) and most don't have the time or the desire to hunt for and manage multiple resources.

We all understand new business hunger, how rapidly our world is changing and the ongoing need to adapt. But it hurts us all when we pretend to be something we're not. The reality sets in quickly, creating serious risk and a damaging impression that will not be forgotten.

Finally, please let's remember that at the end of the day, the best communications programs are those anchored with strategic discipline and respect for the brand.

Brand strategy lies at the heart of any successful communications engagement and it's importance today is magnified as touch-points multiply across channels. It is not something the untrained wake up in the morning instinctively capable of doing. And marketing services firms should make sure this is the very last thing they promise as a credential, unless it's true.