By now we should all know phrases like “holistic 360° approach” are tired in this industry. It seems we’ve recycled these agency terms enough, they’ve finally deteriorated. Yet even as old buzzwords die, two new ones pop up like weeds to replace them.
Burned out on the well-intended “storytelling,” we now choose to say “narrative.” And we’ve found new words like “solution” and “enterprise” and “sustainable” and “operationalize” and “bottom line.” Perhaps these terms meant something at some point, but now they don’t say much at all.
It’s not clear why our industry takes empty words and phrases and runs them to the ground, but I suspect it’s an endless feedback loop. We use these terms while speaking with our clients, and in turn, our clients start talking this way too. They send their RFPs saying they’re looking for scalable solutions that leverage all channels and distribute their content across all mediums to reach a targeted audience and drive conversions, so we promise we’ll do exactly that. We win the business, we’re validated, nobody knows what the hell anybody just said but now we got paid to do it.
Sometimes it works. We spread some dollars across the standard channels, have a few meetings and get some results that sound impressive in a report at least. And then we turn around and do it all again. Most of the time though, we distract ourselves and our clients with smoke and mirrors to the extent that nobody really knows what’s good or bad, successful or not successful, real or bullshit anymore. It all looks the same.
Imagine if we started talking like normal human beings with our team and our clients. If someone had the nerve to say: “Honestly, what the hell do the clicks on these banner ad even mean? Are people buying and loving your product because of these ads? If not, let’s do something different.”
What if a creative director said to a client: “I don’t have a strategy. I just think it would be fucking cool.”
Picture the heads that would positively spin on shoulders if we admitted, in a stakeholder meeting, “We tanked this quarter. We did a shitty, shitty job. But we have better ideas now.”
Yet we persist in creating the illusion of expertise, intellect and, notably, culture.
These agency marketing ploys have, somehow, managed to hang around for almost a decade:
“We are not just a digital agency. We are family.”
“We are more than a branding studio. We are storytellers.”
“We’re just a bunch of kids who have no idea what we’re doing. Failure! We celebrate it. We also love dance parties.”
The “hip agency” angle feels like a button some kid pushed on an animatronic baby doll so many times it’s short-circuiting. “Me want ping pong! Me want beer keg!” it proclaims in a robotic voice, legs and arms gyrating mechanically in a dark hallway, reaching for nothing.
I’m all for teamwork, failure and dance parties. Currently, though, it seems like a yawn-worthy tactic to lure new hires. In 2020, trade “beer keg” with “diversity” and “ping pong” with “inclusive” – admirable values, but usually a half-hearted facade in reality.
Of course, some agencies live up to their own hype. The rest though, bury their blandness under ten-dollar words and performative, half-baked blog posts. Get the job and you’ll quickly learn it’s a hair-on-fire, back-stabbing, soul-sucking place to spend the precious 8 hours of your few remaining days.
Here are some fundamental values that will never be tired in this industry or elsewhere:
Honesty - By this I don’t mean simply listing “transparency” as a core value on your website. I mean creating a culture that actually lives up to the smiling faces on your Team page. I mean having straightforward, no-bullshit conversations between team members and with clients. Every time.
Clarity - Clarity comes naturally with honesty. When you’re not trying so hard to impress, things become a lot more simple. Eliminate the buzzwords and you’ll find yourself saying something both you and your client understand and believe in. It makes everything a whole lot easier.
Humor - Granted, there are some agencies out there that lean a BIT too heavily on puns. But humor, when done right, is timeless.
As designers, we perpetuate the cycle just as much as anyone. We love boasting about our design systems and waxing poetic about our workflows. We’re so busy one-upping each other about who’s the most accessible, the most empathetic, it’s a wonder we get any work done.
It may just be human nature, our survival instincts evolving to the modern age. But I feel confident, with just a little effort, we can still do better.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!