Sizzle reel. I’ve always hated the term, redolent of steakhouse advertising filled with meat that’s, according to the voice over, grilled to perfection.

The implication is it will dazzle prospective clients through a series of quick cuts and a thumping bass track. It’ll highlight the agency’s best work, smooth the edges on work that isn’t so great, and show off big client names – all without having to give the viewer any kind of context for what they’re seeing.

Ad agencies that fall into this trap are like Narcissus, gazing at his own reflection. (For those who’ve forgotten the myth, Narcissus was so fixated by his beauty that he lost his will to live and stared at his reflection until he died. A cautionary tale for our business if ever there was one.)

We can start to solve this problem by simply striking the term “sizzle reel” from our vocabulary. Instead, let’s opt for the more general, if less splashy, “agency reel.”

Unfortunately for many of you, this means taking on a harder task – turning your reflection away from the pool and thinking about what your client wants to hear rather than what you want to tell them. I’ll make it easier for you with a few things to avoid.


  • Boast your way into their hearts. With the growing sophistication of the marketing toolkit and the continued need to justify costs, marketers have become savvy buyers of agency services. It no longer suffices for an agency simply to bandy about bold-faced names like McDonald’s, Coca Cola or Nike.

  • Obfuscate due to a lack of detail. It’s likely that yours is only one of a handful of agencies working on a campaign. By all means, take credit for the good work you did, but don’t try to score extra points by being vague about what you contributed. You’re more likely to elicit annoyance or confusion, not admiration.

  • Make it about your offices and the number/variety of dogs that show up in those offices each day. The reality is most agencies have super-cool offices and generous pets-at-work policies. Unless you can tie this to a clear benefit, you’re just going to lump yourself in with all those other agencies gazing at their reflection.

  • Use an agency reel as a substitute for strong presentation skills. There’s a false impression that throwing some sizzling video into the mix does wonders for livening up a presentation. This is only true if your presentation skills are deadly to begin with. If that’s the case, you're treating the symptom and not the disease.

What should you do? I want to answer this by using a specific ad agency as an illustration.

Shortly after Grey came out with its “famously effective” positioning, they produced one of the best agency reels out there, “Three Minute Grey” (as of the date of this post, you can find it right on Grey’s home page).

What does it do right?

  • It pays off what Grey is known for. Grey landed on a positioning that it has no problem defending. With that two-word phrase, famously effective, Grey goes beyond boasting to demonstrate it has the chops to steward some of the biggest brands in the world.

  • It gives the viewer context. In a very compressed period of time, Grey tells micro-stories not only about its great client work, but its role in the history of modern advertising.

  • It gives the people what they want. Why do people click on play buttons anyway? Often for entertainment, but in the case of agency reels, it’s more likely a shortcut to information. Grey indulges this need by clearly and compellingly answering the viewers’ question, “why should I care?” Bonus points for leaving them with a smile on their face.

  • It uses all the elements of video to its advantage. There’s no rule saying you have to limit your agency reel to thumping soundtracks and visuals of your work. Grey has incorporated voice over, text and clever stock imagery to enhance the experience. Plus, it made an inspired decision to stay away from vapid pop and thumping bass for the soundtrack and opt for Mozart, thereby associating itself with genius.

Sadly, Grey’s reel used to be better. While I don’t have proof beyond my own recollection, Grey appears to have succumbed to the same temptation Narcissus did. I noticed the addition of jargon (“award-winning activation”), self-aggrandizing generalizations (“passionate and innovative minds”) and filler about various agency-of-the-year awards (if I’m a prospective client, I don’t care about those silly awards nearly as much as I do about the famously effective work you just showed me).

Plus, the agency seems to have extended the length to almost four minutes! What happened to Three Minute Grey? You promised to tell me everything in three minutes but then betrayed my trust by making me stick around for another minute in a world where time is money.

That’s not agency sizzle. That’s agency fizzle.