You'd expect a marketing company to be damn good at selling its own business to an interested customer, but this was not the experience of a veteran Auckland businessman who was recently looking for an ad agency.
He says that in five meetings with five agencies, he was given exactly the same sales spiel but very little information on what the companies actually did.
"What distinguishes us is that we really listen to our clients and we take a strategic approach," preached each agency in one way or another.
By the end of the fifth meeting, the businessman cracked and told the sixth company that he knew exactly what they were going to say.
You might be wondering why the client ended up having so many meetings with so many different agencies - each under the impression that it was unique. Ironically for businesses specialising in marketing communications, it came down to the inability – or unwillingness – of the agencies to communicate effectively what they did.
"They all said – on their websites and over an initial call – that they do the full gamut from developing the brand story through to online presence and collateral," says the businessman.
"In each case it quickly became apparent they don't really. One agency might say 'we focus on the brand story, but we know someone who can do the design work, and I have a cousin who does websites'. Another might say 'I'll tell you all about how Google works and the 87 key data points you'll need to sort to optimise SEO. We know people who can do your brand story and maybe even a logo'."
It took the client asking probing questions to find out what the companies actually did and in the end he realised that they often weren't even selling what he was looking to buy.
"It felt like trying to compare power companies or telcos," he says.
This isn't an isolated exception. A colleague who recently expressed interest in a job ad for a "consultative copywriter" (whatever that is) sent me a link to the company's website and asked if I knew what they actually did. I didn't and nor would anyone who visited their website.
It almost reeks of a strange insecurity in the chest-beating marketing industry, as if they are ashamed of what they actually do.
There's also an unintentional admission that comes with these pitches. If you're now suddenly selling yourself as a strategic organisation that really cares about the customer, then what were you doing before? Is it fair to assume there was no strategic direction to your previous work or that you weren't interested in the customer?
Damon Stapleton, chief creative officer at one of New Zealand's biggest ad agencies, DDB Aotearoa, says it almost seems as though the industry has been caught up in a game of "buzzword bingo".
He says that the ideas of strategy and customer-centricity are nothing new, but they're being packaged up as something we haven't seen before.
He sees a parallel in the online trend of so-called LinkedIn Influencers who happen to be really good at explaining things but don't actually make anything themselves.
"I call these people the internet class. They seduce with fancy Venn diagrams and slick presentations that appear to have all the answers, but you have to wonder what they do. We currently have a schism between people explaining and doing in the industry."
So how do you separate the fluffy tirades and slick presentations from the stuff that actually matters? What should clients actually be looking for when they walk into an agency meeting?
"Don't look at what they say. Rather look at what they've made," says Stapleton.
"This industry is still about making things no matter how much wrapping paper we've put on it."