It can be depressing to look at another agency's web site.
You check it out and say to yourself (as I did yesterday) "Holy cow! Look at those clients!"
Then you look a little deeper, and you realize that it's not all it seems to be. Chunks of the "Work" and "Clients" sections turn out to be not exactly completely really relevant to the current agency. I saw one recently that included a great deal of work produced by a predecessor agency. I've seen others where they included on their client list, clients of a way-back former agency where one of the principals used to work. Two jobs ago.
OK, so technically, it's not completely inaccurate. Bob actually worked at Bruise Brothers Creative Partners when Parabellum Projectile Potato Chips was a client, and he actually did work on the account. And the agency they bought the agency from had these clients and the three of us here now worked on them there, but still . . .
It just seems a tad dishonest to me to present work and/or clients as your own with no disclaimers or caveats at all, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. I don't feel that there should be any issue with stating that "This is not an agency client. Myrtle worked on this account at a previous job and Myrtle is a senior art director here, so it is representative of the work she does for us and will do for you." What the hell is wrong with that? Nothing.
It's the kind of bullshit approach to bullshitting that I think helps give us all a bad name. I mean, do we really want clients who visit our web site to feel like they have to take everything we say there - and by extension anywhere else - with a grain of salt? I don't think so.
It seems to be accepted that many agencies will misrepresent themselves or inflate themselves. Certainly billings are often inflated. So is the number of employees.
I remember a local agency a few years ago that was pitching a large account and hired a double handful of temps on the day of the Agency Visit and told them to sit in offices and look busy, like they were working. A few years ago, another local agency claimed on their web site that they had won "Best in Show" that year at the Addys for their web site, when what they actually had won was an Addy. An Addy is good enough, why BS about it?
There is an agency that even has (or used to have) a lobby display built around a successful campaign their CD ran in another city before he even came to town. A casual observer could easily be forgiven for thinking the local agency was responsible. (Besides, no CD ever does all the work himself, so claiming all the credit is kind of cheesy anyway.)
My point is, the advertising business and the people in it have enough of a credibility problem as it is. We're accused of fabricating claims in our ads and commercials, of trying to convince people to buy things they don't need at prices they can't afford and all manner of other less-than-desirable things. It doesn't seem to me that we ought to go out of our way to give anybody an excuse to see us as bullshit artists.
If you're a prospect reading this, ask the agency which staff members worked on the projects in their portfolio. And ask them if the clients they list are their clients or someone else's. It's a fair question. There's nothing really wrong with showing work or client experience that is only tangentially or distantly yours - if it fairly illustrates the kind of work your clients will get. Just be upfront and honest about it.
And before anybody calls or writes or starts to call me names, one of the things about being a small agency where one of the owners is the creative director and primary copywriter is that I can state with absolute honesty that every single bit of work on our web site and in our portfolio and everything we show clients, I had a major role in. Probably wrote every word too. For better or for worse.
I have always believed that one critical element of good advertising is that it has to contain an essential truth. An essential truth ought to be part of what we say about ourselves as well.