Agency professionals are largely having the wrong conversation, driven by the wrong language. Tim Williams says they should aim to use the value-oriented language of sellers.

In 1917 Russia, an empire with a population of 166 million, it took fewer than 25,000 Bolsheviks to move the country towards communism. No doubt Lenin and his colleagues were powerful orators, but it was their choice of words – their language – that served as the real catalyst for the creation of the USSR.

EST founder Werner Erhard famously taught that “all transformations are linguistic”. A similar view is held by many behavioural psychologists, who posit that language is the precursor to behaviour change. For those of us filling the streets demanding a revolution in marketing, we would do well to take a few steps back and arm ourselves not with torches and pitchforks but with a change in our lexicon.

Words matter. In particular, the language used by agencies when dealing with their clients on economic matters. During a recent office tour of a multinational agency in the Middle East, I encountered a literal wall of words in the form of wallpaper in the offices of the finance department. Designed as a word cloud with dozens of words, here are some of the terms that caught my attention: Cost; Overhead; Budget; Cost Reduction; Timesheet; Balance Sheet; Audit; Liabilities; Reconciliation; Discount; Rate; Overtime; Write-off; Exposure.

What do all these words have in common? They represent the language of cost. And thanks to well-meaning finance professionals, these terms get drummed into the consciousness of client-facing agency executives, who enter into pricing discussions using exactly the wrong vocabulary. As sellers, agencies should be using the language of value, not the language of cost.

The word ‘cost’ itself is a buyer’s term. From a seller’s standpoint, the word should be ‘price’. Agency documents labelled ‘estimated cost’ should instead simply say ‘pricing’. Observe the aisles of grocery stores, the shelves of department stores, or the check-out pages of e-commerce websites, and the monetary value of products and services is always represented by the word ‘price’, not ‘cost’. As commercial partners to brands, agencies should know better.

Instead of talking about ‘labour’, ‘rates’ and ‘cost of service’, agency professionals should use the value-oriented language of sellers, which revolves around words like ‘solutions’, ‘results’, ‘outcomes’ and ‘talent’. In place of the word ‘budget’, ‘investment’. Not a ‘contract’, but the friendlier designation ‘agreement’. Instead of a ‘bill’, an ‘invoice’.

Small points? Perhaps. But taken in aggregate, our glossary of terms sends meaningful signals. It seems more than a little ironic that communications professionals should need to be convinced of the importance of word choice. Consider the copywriters who labour over le mot juste in a headline. The expressions we use in a discussion deciding the terms of an agency–client working relationship are decidedly just as consequential.

In the hallways and conference rooms of agencies and brands alike, we’re largely having the wrong conversation, driven by the wrong linguistics. We talk about ‘utilisation’ when we should be emphasising ‘accountability’. We deliberate about the cost-efficiency of a campaign when we should be conversing about its efficacy. We waste time discussing ‘reconciliation’ of hours spent, instead of the impact of value created.

The same goes for every dialogue around ‘burn rates’, ‘burndowns’ and ‘shortfalls’. Managers who drone on about a team’s ‘billability’ (a curious word if ever there was one) would be better-served stressing the velocity and quality of work completed.

You say you want a revolution? Start with choosing and using the words that connote what really matters in marketing.