The “A” Word

May 25, 2020

I used to bristle at even the suggestion that FUEL was an “Agency”.

Earlier in my career, while on the client side, most of my previous experiences with agencies were mostly miserable.

My belief – right or wrong – was that what was wrong with agencies was at their very core, that you couldn’t make them better.

When someone becomes disenchanted with a product or service, they all too often set out to build a better mouse trap, create a better process, streamline an experience, find efficiencies and so on.

That is exactly what we did.

When co-founder Bill Bollman and I set out to start our own “firm”, we created an entirely new playbook and did everything possible to change the vocabulary, the language, the description of who we were, what we did and why we existed. We wanted FUEL to differentiate from that premise with its entire heart and soul.

But when we took our own unique language out into the business world, it scared people. They didn’t understand and they couldn’t figure out what to do with us. They had been educated by the agencies and whether the agencies had been successful for them or not, the language had already been established and old habits were hard to break. It was not going to be easy gaining people’s trust if they couldn’t even understand us.

Undeterred by an obvious mistake in our own communication (and we were the ones telling others that WE were the master communicators), we forged ahead anyway. We managed to win over several new clients and a few who had known us in our former lives, but we were lucky. The ones who already knew us understood what we could do for them and trusted us. The other ones probably didn’t know any better, but at least we made good on our promise to deliver the goods.

But there were plenty of days it just felt like we were invisible.

Years passed. An old friend from the early days, Bill Eckloff, had built a career as a copywriter with a few notable agencies in the Midwest. He offered to help us translate FUEL speak into the English language. We respectfully passed on his repeated offers. We still knew what was best for FUEL because WE WERE FUEL.

Or so we thought.

One day, after a particularly frustrating new business pursuit and loss, I finally broke down and started listening to those I’d surrounded myself with⁠ — smarter people than me.

If I was telling others to trust FUEL, then perhaps I should be more trusting of others myself. We began the somewhat long and arduous translation from FUEL-speak to common English.

At one point in the process, once we were firmly entrenched in the translation and his confidence growing that we might actually listen to him about FUEL, Bill Eckloff suggested that we begin to use the “A” word to describe ourselves.

The audacity.

His rationale was simple: yes, a brand’s voice and tone can be a key point of differentiation. But if we wanted to play in the same sandbox as agencies and, most importantly, get found by companies and organizations in need of one, we’d better start using the correct terminology to describe ourselves.

It wasn’t that he expected us to be something that we weren’t; he just reasoned that we were working in the same category. It didn’t matter whether we’d invented a better mousetrap or not. To Google SEO and client prospects, we were an agency and to not call ourselves as such, we risked continuing to hide in plain sight.

I caved and finally resigned myself to the idea that we’re an Aaaaaa…… Ok, it is still hard for me to say. But our website now says we’re an Agency. All of our marketing, communications and presentations say Agency and our clients call us by that name too. Google and the social media platforms also like us now.

We’re finally in a real category. I get it now.

It can be ironic when you encounter another company facing the same demons you once faced and get to help them overcome the same struggles. We have encountered several clients in the past few years who have experienced similar situations.

Like FUEL, one of our new (at the time) clients had created all of their own systems from the ground up. They really did have a better business idea and something that could be not only successful in their own category, but potentially disruptive in others too.

They too had developed their own language and vocabulary. They knew what they did intimately and insisted that their words, vocabulary and language must be spoken in all of their marketing, despite our trying to explain that our research had determined that their market spoke a completely different language.

After a few months using their language and vocabulary, the results underwhelmed and frustration mounted. But the time had come when they asked for help.

We helped this client translate their language and vocabulary into more common language generally used by their own category and spoken by their own customers.

The difference in their business has been day and night.

In what was almost a miraculous turn-around of fortunes, their phones started ringing, their email boxes and schedules started filling with orders and almost overnight they became believers.

Now there is talk of expansion, growth, even during these crazy times, where before they were only talking about survival.

The moral of the story?

Communication is as old as humans. If you really intend to help others doing anything, take it upon yourself to learn and speak their language.

Simple as that.

– John M.