Dear CMO

November 13, 2018 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Robert Frost was right. In life, and when choosing an advertising agency, the road less traveled can make all the difference. If you’re like most CMOs, searching for a new agency is a balance of fear, hopeful expectation and risk management. Knowing that, it is understandable why many brands choose to work with agencies who have done what they do. It’s certainly a safer, more justifiable choice. But it may also be the wrong one. All things being equal, there’s a really good chance the less an ad agency knows about you and your business, the better they are for you. That may sound ridiculous, but it’s not. And here’s why.

When most CMOs start an agency search, one of the first things they look for are agencies with experience in their particular category. Selling hamburgers? Surely an ad agency that’s had a burger account will have a better sense for how to sell them than an agency that hasn’t. Same goes for insurance, fashion, cars, toothpaste, cell phones, or anything else. Hedging your bet with an ad agency that has relevant experience is a logical decision. But here’s the rub – when was the last time you were inspired by anything logical?

The mindset is understandable. CMOs have a lot on the line and both agency changes and new campaigns can be time consuming and expensive. And when those things don’t click, there’s usually not an abundance of tolerance, patience, or understanding. Knowing that, an ad agency that’s already done the heavy lifting in your category might seem like the easy, or even obvious choice. The thing is, too often CMOs end up trading a shot at extraordinary, for the comfort of easier.

No matter their experience, for creative teams, coming up with big, transcendent ideas is like catching lightning in a bottle. Doing it twice in the same category is exponentially more complicated and extremely rare for one ironic reason – by the time a creative team gets to “Act Two,” they know too much. There is something in their brains that subconsciously says, “I recognize this challenge and I already know the way.” And often, for creative and even account service teams, breaking out of that mindset is twice as difficult as coming to the challenge knowing nothing at all.


In “Eat Big Fish,” Adam Morgan’s classic book about challenger branding, he details a concept called “intelligent naivete” that explains why you may be far better served by an agency that knows nothing about what you do. Morgan characterizes intelligent naivete as “the vitality of inexperience.” It encourages us to lean into our inexperience and view it not as a barrier, but as an opportunity to see a challenge, a brand, the world, through fresh eyes, questioning the status quo and refusing to accept convention simply because it’s the way things have always been.

With that in mind, think what a difference it would make to work with an ad agency employing a curious, “what if” and “why not” mindset, versus one bringing years of preconceived notions about your brand, or your category. It’s not that experience isn’t important, or without value. It clearly plays a huge role in choosing a marketing partner. But when it comes to choosing which agencies you want to consider, forget trying to find the agency that’s done great work in your particular space. Find agencies that do great work, period. Pick the one whose team and culture are the best fit for you. And then turn them loose.

That, will make all the difference.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a leading advertising agency in Dallas. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other things that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on any of our more than 300 posts.

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


We challenge underdog brands to think differently. We help them find their voice, and urge them to blaze new trails to make sure they stand out from the pack. Whether you need an agency of record or support on a project, we are here to help you win.