The short answer is, “It depends”.
When you are being pitched by a marketing agency, they may be able to show that, as an agency, they have worked with five other clients in your industry. That doesn’t necessarily mean that anybody assigned to your account team has that industry experience. Large agencies in particular have their own list of incentives about how they staff your project that are not always in your best interest.
Brian Cross wrote in The Case for Small Agencies:
“So before we begin to think that every employee has all of that experience built in, let’s ask what projects the account manager has worked on. Let’s ask how many projects of this size this particular project manager assigned to your account has. It’s going to be a very small subset of the larger master list. And let’s hope that’s true. You may get the new employee that was hired to staff your new project because the group was running lean and hires contractors to expand with the workload. What is his/her experience since they’ll be doing the day to day work on your project?”
On the other hand, when a small agency can point to a specific client they have worked with or an experience they have had, it’s more likely that the team of individuals working on your project will actually have had that experience, because their core team is smaller and more versatile.
The key is to understand the industry experience of the specific people working on your project. Otherwise, it’s largely irrelevant.
Now, is it always better if your team has related experience? Normally, yes; but there are some caveats.
Sometimes, having prior industry experience can impede creativity and “out-of-the-box” thinking, because an agency will have to fight the urge to revert to “what worked last time” — and that may not be what works best for you. This isn’t a fault created by the agency’s past (and presumably positive) experience; it’s an inability to move outside the agency’s own comfort zone. That instinct can also be compounded by a time crunch or an over-familiarity with one type of client or solution.
Plus, since you already have a ton of experience in your own industry, it’s sometimes preferable to work with an outsider – someone who can offer a fresh perspective, and who knows how companies in other industries are handling similar challenges.
The bottom line is, industry experience isn’t as critical as ensuring that you’re working with a smart and effective team that puts your specific project and long-term needs first. But, all things considered, it’s still nice to know that your lemon farmer has previously eaten a lemon.
What do you think? How important is vertical industry experience? Let us know in the comments.