I speak to a lot of agencies. I meet with owners several times each week. And lately most of them have talked about the slowdown. Decisions are being delayed (on huge accounts as well as small), budgets dematerialise, and even on wins, the available fees are mysteriously lower than the original pitch was billed to be. It can be disheartening and frustrating, even dangerous.
Yet when I look at their businesses (as an agency growth accelerator it’s of primary interest to me) I see the same thing every time. I see craftsmen’s tools blunted by misuse and a lack of sharpening.
It’s made all the more stark to me, as an outsider looking in, when I compare it to the businesses I actually work with. Universally they are thriving. One of the agencies I chair just picked up a quarter million account for a brand they’d been lusting after. The client came to them. They easily won the pitch. And the client has already started spending.
The services they provide aren’t much different to the services all agencies provide: digital marketing, advertising, websites. In fact, almost all the agencies I work with do much the same in terms of services. Yes, they are more coherently run, because we establish a rolling plan to make constant improvements in leadership, process, management, getting the senior team to take the weight of running the company. But that takes time, usually a few months before the effects become apparent. Being run well is a long-term play to make them much more attractive to buyers, while distributing the load to the succession team over time so the owners can sell and leave knowing the company will continue to grow. (As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, the CEO is but a custodian of a great company and should hand it on to her successor in better shape than when they took on the job.)
The short term is what trips agencies up when the market takes a pause. We’re all familiar with the idea of feast and famine, and when famine (usually caused by the rollercoaster of on-again, off-again leadgen and pitching cycles) coincides with a downturn that’s when agencies go under, taking all hands with them.
As a result the survivors have fewer competitors, and so have more client work to pick up; they continue to grow and thrive, doubling their revenue for a couple of years while the rest of the market feels like a bloodbath.
These successful companies have the same thing in common, the same thing all those companies I’ve met with so clearly lack: they have razor-sharp positioning.
Most of my work starts with nailing a crystal-clear proposition. It takes effort, usually a couple of days of intense workshopping to get to the point where the agency can present an unequivocal competitive position – a perfect edge – to clients, together with a marketing plan.
Clients need to be able to see from far away exactly what an agency does. The agency needs to know what to focus on to the exclusion of all distraction. It takes genuine bravery to do it. But when pushed far enough and with sufficient focus it creates brilliance and differentiation that stands far above the market.
- “We make tired brands famous again” – five-times Agency of the Year winners
- “The creative agency for entrepreneurs” – seven people to £35m in billings in two years
Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to articulate from the inside what your agency could be, what your agency should shine at, with sufficient force. It really does take external expertise to push it further than the internal team can manage alone, but when it’s done properly, and with the entire senior team’s buy-in (which only ever comes from co-creation, hence the workshop approach), the resulting proposition will be outstanding.
And outstanding is what you need to be when the vast majority of agencies have woolly, nebulous or me-too positioning. After all, most agencies deliver the same stuff. Clients want more. They want precision and expertise and the confidence that you can deliver because you are superbly focused. If that is what you promise and that promise glints from afar, clients will come to you, and if you can deliver because you believe in your proposition there won’t be any hesitation in deploying budgets. After all, clients too want (need) to win in a downturn. If budgets are the hammer to drive their success, you are the client’s chisel: they need you to be exceptionally sharp.
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