To specialize as an advertising agency, or not? Why Serif Decided Not To Specialize

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Specialization. Niche. Micro economy, expert, thought-leader, authority, guru, wizard.

As marketers, these are all terms we hear often. Open up any marketing blog, recent email newsletter from XYZ agency, or article from AdWeek and some of the above buzzwords will probably be seen.

However, I have chosen to not have Serif specialize in any one niche. Why? Well, first let’s look at the benefits of specializing…

Specialization is often seen as critical for your brand in today’s economy. Why is this? My theory is noise. A lot of noise. Monopolized mass markets no longer really exist which creates even more of a vacuum. Author Richard Wurman claims in his book Information Anxiety, “the weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person in 17th-century England was likely to come across in a lifetime.” According to the University of California San Diego, this year Americans are expected to consume 15.5 hours of media per day.

Let’s look at this in the context of a business goal. For example, I want to be the world’s best photographer. Is that possible? Yes. Unlikely, but possible. I can, however, reposition that goal to be something that is more specific and still ambitious: ‘I want to be the world’s best photographer who takes macro photos of animals in black and white on film.’ That’s sounds more feasible. In turn, by specializing, this creates a stronger brand.

Let’s pause here to clarify some things. What is a brand and how do I define it?

A brand is not your logo. I define a brand in two ways: a decision and mental real estate. A brand is simply a decision to choose X product or service over Z product and service. What causes that decision, though? It’s various touch points (typically an average of seven). Stories, memories, word of mouth, energy, emails, website, etc. that, when all taken into account, cause you to make that brand decision. That decision of giving your trust to a brand can only be created through honest communication on any level, (if there’s only one thing you’re going to take away from this, I hope it’s that) of a brand’s product or service. That brand then takes up a small piece of your mental real-estate before or after your interaction. Think of the world’s strongest brands:

Apple. Google. Nike. Amazon. Coca-Cola to name a few…

When you think of the words below, words what come to mind?
Innovation: Apple
Search Engine: Google
Sports Apparel: Nike
Online Store: Amazon
Soda: Coca-Cola
Safety: Volvo
Fast Food: McDonald’s
Coffee: Starbucks
Social Media: Facebook

They have specialized and own the category they are in. Another example of the benefits of specializing is KB Toys. KB Toys used to be KB Toys and Furniture. They repositioned the company to be just KB Toys years ago so they could be better perceived as the leading retailer of toys. By also selling furniture, it diluted their brand. Aways ask yourself whether or not a product line extension is going to hurt or help your brand.

Now that we’ve talked about the benefits of specialization, I want to talk you about why Serif hasn’t specialized in one industry. An oddity since I advocate 99% of the time for my clients to specialize. This has been a pain point of mine for years here at Serif in determining whether or not we should specialize in one industry, but I recently have gotten closure from one man. More on that to come. Before that, a short history lesson:

Serif was founded in 2009 as a video production company. We later evolved as an agency to offer two other services, branding and web development. This occurred because we would deliver a beautiful video for our client and our client’s website or logo would not be up to par with their newly produced video and their presence was not consistent. Consistency is key and consistency confirms authenticity.  Serif kept referring friends to our clients for web and branding and it got to the point where it happened so often that it only made sense for us to go the DIY route. Here is why we extended our services.

  1. We wanted to help our clients in more than just video production.
  2. We were creatives and knew we were capable of working in most, if not all mediums. Creativity can be applied anywhere.
  3. And let’s be honest, more services = more opportunities which = more revenue. Sometimes…

Over the years, we’ve partnered with and helped a wide array of industries, companies, and unique personalities. We’ve worked with companies from a wide range including: a chocolate factory, construction companies, funeral homes, a pet store retailer, a soap company, public entities, a fortune 500 company, a bakery, celebrities, artists in Iceland, a non-profit in Nepal, luxury retail brands, and many, many more. Once we almost did work with a start-up that wanted to deliver bananas at their peak freshness to people’s door-steps. The founder of the company realized there wasn’t a market. I wish that project would have worked out because I wish I had a banana at peak freshness right now. That’s probably the most random call I’ve gotten at Serif, which says a lot…

Some of the industries we’ve worked with have been more profitable than others. The basic scorecard of success for any business is the ability to make a profit. One we found to be very profitable was the healthcare industry, which is why there are so many agencies who make healthcare their niche. Makes sense. We worked with so many healthcare companies it got to the point where we considered starting an agency that only specialized in working in healthcare. We got really close to doing that. Several times. We even created a company name, logo, and website.
 Rehab Creative

However, we could never fully commit as an agency. On paper it made sense: we could identify our target market, had an understanding of our client’s demos, could speak their language, and had a portfolio that appeals them. More than anything, this could pay the bills. But we could never get to that point and it was due to…

Passion.

The basic scorecard of success is profit so we should put our passion aside and focus on revenue, right? Serif is a business, not a hobby. It was hard and I could never do it. I always wrestled with that concept until I listened to an interview by one man who brought me all the closure I needed:

Rick Rubin.

Who is Rick Rubin? He is considered to be the most influential producer in the last 20 years according to MTV.  He’s responsible for producing a lot of music you’ve most likely heard: LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, Slayer, The Mars Volta, Mick Jagger, Jay-Z, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Cash, Rage Against the Machine, etc. Read the list of people he’s worked with and then re-read the list of all the various industries Serif has worked in. Rick Rubin said in an interview with Tim Ferris that if he would have only worked in the rap or rock genres it just wouldn’t have been as fun and would’ve been cookie cutter. I highly recommend listening to the episode.

If we would’ve continued in the direction of only working in healthcare, our work would’ve lost its soul, become cookie cutter, and, more than anything, we would have lost our ability to leverage our fresh outside perspective. Which is critical for us to effectively listen and to communicate our client’s truth. We chose not specialize so we can specialize. I’m passionate about working with nearly any industry and forming solid relationships where I can solve my clients problems, get them the results they need, and make them money. At the end of the day, relationships are what will always excite me.

All that to say, if you’re going to specialize, before you pull the trigger, make sure you’re passionate about it.

Perhaps this is bad advice, but ask me in 5 years if how this is working out for Serif.

What are your thoughts on Serif not specializing in one industry? Do you have a niche, if so, how is that working out for you?

Cheers,

-D.C.

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