When it comes to addressing blockers to agency growth, time-poor leaders often miss the bigger picture.

During our initial conversations with potential clients, agency leaders often ask about the types of growth challenges that Co:definery solves.

Unsurprisingly, they’re pretty varied – not least because everyone defines ‘growth’ differently, and our clients come in all shapes and sizes, as well as disciplines and geographies. 

That said, the problems we’re presented with do tend to fall into two camps – visible symptoms and big picture challenges.

What’s stopping growth?

For visible symptoms, the classic example is a downstream blockage in sales. We typically hear one or more of: 

  • Our pipeline is empty – perhaps surprisingly, this is more often caused by inaction than the wrong actions, like there’s some magic silver bullet, just waiting to be discovered. Sadly there isn’t.
  • We need more growth from our existing clients – an increasingly common view that account handlers just aren’t as commercial, well-trained and hungry as they were ‘back in the day’. Often a valid view. 
  • We keep coming a ‘close second’ in pitches – heightened emotions and decades of sector-wide bad practice cultivate this nadir of agency excuses and self-flagellation: from clients ‘lacking bravery’ or underhand competitors, to poor presentation skills or a lack of creative firepower. The list goes on.

Unsurprisingly, the big picture challenges are more upstream. They speak to growth more broadly. For example:

  • Lack of standout – a need for differentiation, often accompanied by a doubt that it’s even possible (“but the market’s so oversupplied… everyone says the same thing”) or an end-of-their-tether frustration because they’ve tried for years to nail it themselves (“but we do this for our own clients!”).
  • Unfocused strategy – feeling a bit jack-of-all-trades because they’ve always been guided by client demands and shiny objects, rather propelled by clear direction.
  • Relentless hamster wheel – often related to the previous two scenarios, this is a sense that it’s all just a bit too much and something’s got to give to retain clients, talent and sanity. AKA ‘we’re knackered, please help’.

Neither of these two sets of examples is exhaustive or mutually exclusive, but what’s most interesting is that nine times out of ten, the visible symptoms are caused by the bigger picture challenges being unmet.

Connecting symptoms and causes

Let’s take the ‘not winning pitches’ example. Yes, it could be a lack of pitch skills – from process design and client engagement, to team dynamics and presentation skills.

But the reality is that – spoiler alert – most agencies know how to write a decent story and present it well enough. And let’s be honest, if you’re the right fit, it’s – hopefully – not your polish and pizazz that the client is buying into.

A more common cause is that your pitch is fine, but you’re just in the wrong room. An unfocused strategy creates a scattershot approach to growth, leading to generic (non-)qualification and chasing anything with a pulse. 

At that point, you’re relying on tenacity and rapport (“people buy from people”) as a temporary distraction from the fact that you’re just not the right fit. You know it, the client knows it, but no-one’s prepared to say it – hence the brutal gut-punch of ‘sorry, you came a close second’.

It’s a similar story with the other examples of downstream symptoms. An empty pipeline is usually caused by no-one being clear on what to fill it with. Again, that’s a strategy question. And although training your suits to sell can certainly jumpstart client growth, they’re massively hampered by culture, resourcing and – in media agencies especially – a bewildering product set. Yup, that’s all strategy too. 

Remove your growth blockers at source

Happily, strategy serves as a flywheel. By solving one or two big picture challenges, you can address a wide range of visible symptoms. Here’s how: 

  1. Define – get super clear on whether your strategy is fit for purpose
  2. Design – figure out which big picture priorities will create most impact, most quickly
  3. Deliver – invest in accountability – like coaching – to ensure that you and your team nail your symptoms once and for all. 

In a hurry? Here’s a hack to get you started. Grab a pen and list out every tangible symptom that you’re seeing. Don’t rush to diagnose – just capture what you can actually observe. 

Next, write down your best guess at each symptom’s root cause. Keep asking ‘why?’ to push yourself deeper towards the fundamental cause. You’ll probably find the same underlying causes keep coming up. 

Finally, select the cause of your most commercially limiting symptoms, then focus your efforts on fixing it. And if you need a hand, just drop us a line.


Image: Omar Ram