Insights.

The new rules for post-pandemic growth

The new rules for post-pandemic growth

Whether your agency is thriving or rebuilding, the pandemic has created new playing conditions and accelerated the need for a more progressive business model. ‘Necessity’, we’re taught,...

Whether your agency is thriving or rebuilding, the pandemic has created new playing conditions and accelerated the need for a more progressive business model. ‘Necessity’, we’re taught, ‘is the mother of invention’. This evolved from Plato’s belief that “our need will be the real creator”. And whether you’re a Socratic scholar or, like me, were today years old when you learnt that, we can all agree that Covid-19 has proved him right. No wonder, then, that six years of transformation occurred in the first six months of the pandemic. For agencies in particular, change wasn’t just constant - it was full-on and mission-critical. As clients scrambled to react to lockdown, you ploughed through tough questions in double-quick time under unique working conditions. So what now? How are you feeling? And whether your agency has thrived or faltered, how can the year’s learnings accelerate your progress? 

Back to the hamster wheel

With forethought, strong leadership and no little luck, many agencies have prospered under the pandemic. They’re feeling the ‘Covid bounce’ (in the UK at least) and optimism is high.  But with the client demands, relentless pace and daily compromises between work and home, many agency leaders also admit to asking ‘is this all there is?’. Buying into the default lifestyle and version of success is no longer a given. For network agencies, the constraints feel more constraining and there’s a growing sense of jeopardy within the endless pressure to hit your numbers. And for independents, the traditional dream of selling to the highest bidder feels more distant, so founders are interrogating their aspirations in search of a more bespoke and controllable course.  So even if you’ve continued to prosper, existential questions still hang heavy in the air. 

Can you even do this anymore? 

If you’re running an agency that’s really suffered under Covid-19 - many of whom were simply too far from a chair when the music stopped - then you’re probably even more exhausted.  As well as the heightened everyday pressures and profound responsibility to protect jobs, you’ve also had to watch this thing you built - your baby - regress to a stage you powered past years ago.  If you’re questioning your motivation to rebuild, then please know that many others feel the same. To lose, say, six years’ progress in six months is hard enough. But it’s nigh on impossible to feel energised at the prospect of another six years’ toil, just to recreate the same fragility. There has to be a faster route to a better business.

Old world or new? 

Changes in the agency marketplace have been accelerated. So whether your agency is rebuilding or capitalising on a new wave of demand, you’re standing at a fork in the road. You can stick to the familiar practices - those that served you well in the past - or you can retool your agency to reflect changes in how clients buy. From Tokyo to Glasgow, New York to Newbury and Munich to Manchester*, Co:definery has spent the last year helping agency leaders challenge conventions, embrace their opportunity and adopt lasting change.  These are the prevailing shifts to make: These are mindset shifts as much as strategic imperatives. So embed big picture change into everyday structures, processes and behaviours. Don’t let legacy beliefs slow you down. As a case in point, for all your pandemic-driven innovations and fresh ways of working, which new habits will you retain? In particular, which will you staunchly defend when clients ‘encourage’ a return to normal?  Your opportunity is to focus - choose the right path, back yourself and double down on the changes required. 

New market, new mindset

It’s often said that history is written by the victors. But even though business needn’t be a zero-sum game (i.e. for you to win, I must lose), you still aspire to being one of the success stories of the 2020s - whatever the decade may hold. And although there’s no real evidence that the network agencies are dying, there are plenty of reasons why the likes of Dept, S4 Capital, Croud, MSQ and others are thriving. They’re not riding high solely on demand for digital services - there’s also a progressiveness in their strategy, leadership, people and growth culture. So regardless of how your agency has fared or how much energy you’ve got left in the tank, if you want to accelerate towards a healthier, more sustainable form of growth, it’s time to be bold.  Focus and conviction were often dismissed as impractical luxuries for the privileged few, but now more than ever, they’ve become a necessity for all.  (* sorry - went a bit ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ there)
Image: Jens Lelie 

Growing your agency when you’ve never done New-Business

Growing your agency when you’ve never done New-Business

Successful agencies often say ‘we’ve never really needed to look for new-business’. But don’t confuse growth with strategy, because you might not like where you end up. (This article...

Successful agencies often say ‘we’ve never really needed to look for new-business’. But don’t confuse growth with strategy, because you might not like where you end up. (This article first appeared in The Goods - the global business development magazine)  Like passing your driving test or going away to university, the independent thrill of launching an agency is hard to beat - especially when growth comes naturally.  With luck, you had a founding client or two. And of course you rattled through your contacts, calling your mates, chasing down past clients and hitting up your ex’s cousin’s cat’s lodger, who’d just been appointed chief of something at somewhere.  With talent and hard work, you grew. Key clients stayed and spent more. Others changed jobs and got you in there too. Maybe word of mouth and an occasional award earned you some inbound leads.  Eventually the wild west matured. You became operationally solid, with decent structures and processes. Your unique culture emerged and your leadership, finance and people skills evolved. Maybe you even got round to writing job descriptions.  This agency lark isn’t so hard! 

Beware your black book’s half-life

By now you’re thinking, next stop: global domination, selling up or working a four day week. Congratulations - you’ve cracked it.  Except you haven’t. Suddenly things slow down. Your pipeline isn’t quite so plump and juicy. You realise that your black book had a half-life and its power is spent.  Fair enough, you think - time to get proactive about growth: let’s do some marketing and lead generation. Except you’ve never done it and you’ve got no idea how little you know about the breadth of options you face. Worse still, people offer vague and contradictory advice, like ‘it’s a numbers game’ or ‘it’s all about inbound’.  So where on Earth should you start? And in particular, what are the pitfalls to avoid? 

Don’t jump to execution

Like getting your driving license, many agencies see lead generation as a box to be ticked. But like taking your driving test, rushing it won’t get you very far. So simmer down, hot shot - think ‘measure twice, cut once’.  What are you actually selling? As the saying goes, nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. It’s the same with lead generation. A generic strapline that demands explanation is very different to a meaningful proposition that communicates a discrete market fit.  So if you’re in BD and your CEO can’t articulate the difference, then go polish your résumé.

Don’t do too much  

In contrast to rushing in, another risk is holding back. It’s tempting to chase perfection - the ultimate marketing and lead generation machine. This often speaks more to fear than ambition. We love telling ourselves we’re moving forward when in fact we’re delaying a task we don’t relish. Like adding ever more mundane tasks to your to-do list (‘have lunch’), the illusion of progress provides comfort. The slow quest for lead generation perfection creates a complex, lumbering beast. And because sacrifice is the essence of strategy, doing a bit of everything, for everyone, in every channel, is like nailing jelly to a wall. It’s unlikely to stick and it certainly won’t be efficient. Welcome to exhaustion city, in the great state of hate-my-job.

Don’t do too little 

So is going minimalist the antidote to unwieldy perfection? Not quite. It’s seductive to stick to the basics - especially if your agency’s running lean - but that rarely creates momentum.  The noble intent to focus often produces a plan that lies dormant until a pipeline emergency. Lacking muscle memory, you wheezily splutter into action, exacerbating the natural peaks and troughs of demand.  This ad hoc malaise is most common in agencies where ‘new-business is everyone’s responsibility’. So take Michael Caine’s advice in Get Carter: “with me, it’s a full-time job”.  And if you’re the first business developer that your agency’s hired, beware being hailed as a super-human panacea. It’s nice to hear, but you’re not the messiah. 

Don’t be a hostage to fortune 

All this not-too-fast and not-too-slow might sound like Goldilocks is setting the rules. Does all this nuance really matter? You bet it does.  If you don’t embrace lead generation - because it never feels mission critical - then you might become a terminal coaster. You make so-so money on the back of ever more dominant clients - until you wake up one morning and realise that two of them deliver 90% of the revenue and make 90% of your decisions. Potential acquirers would run a mile. This slippery slope away from autonomy also happens at large agencies. Relying on intermediary relationships and global client inertia makes them just as much of a hostage to fortune.  In each of these cases, the daily grind obscures the bigger picture. With no agreed direction, your ‘strategy’ defaults to an echo of your reputation; a lagging indicator of what you’re known for. Which is fine if you want to do the same thing forever and client needs never evolve. Spoiler alert: you don’t and they are.

Plot your own course

Although headspace might be in short supply, a clear business strategy remains the key to effective marketing and lead generation. Sadly too many agency chiefs confuse ‘strategy’ with metrics or aspirations - like being the ‘best’ or doubling in size. That’s dereliction of duty.  To thrive long-term, you need clarity - on the discrete audience opportunity you’re best placed to address, as well as on how helping them will get you where you want to go.  It’s remarkable how few agencies can articulate this. Not only are they unclear where they’re headed, their target audience is counterproductively shallow. If yours is defined solely by sectors and job titles - or worse still, as essentially any budget holder with a pulse - then you need to go deeper.  Ultimately, many agencies jog along making a decent living; comfortable at a certain ceiling. And that’s okay. But imagine a world where you keep on winning the kind of work you’ve always dreamed of. To power this kind of sustainable growth, you need scarce in-demand expertise. That requires deliberate action Or to put it more bluntly, lacking a strategy or lead generation plan won’t be instantly fatal, but any growth will be in spite of yourself - and you’ll be storing up problems for later.  Remember that hot-blooded thrill of newfound independence? Don’t let it evaporate in the lukewarm glow of early success. 
Image: Sushobhan Badhai

Why network agencies aren’t dead yet

Why network agencies aren’t dead yet

Despite the demise of network agencies being greatly exaggerated, to thrive in 2021, marketers still need to choose their agency partners more carefully than ever. (This article first appeared...

Despite the demise of network agencies being greatly exaggerated, to thrive in 2021, marketers still need to choose their agency partners more carefully than ever. (This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written for a Marketing audience) From cats vs dogs and Blur vs Oasis, to a certain referendum - the specifics of which escape me - we all love a binary debate. Either pick a side and fight to the death, or grab some popcorn and watch sparks fly. And of course, it's all good, clean fun - until it's not. Things turn ugly, livelihoods are lost and families get torn apart. And that’s just over pop music. So given the ongoing challenges that marketers face in 2021, let’s explore another great debate of our age - network agencies vs independents. 

Are network agencies obsolete? 

A popular refrain is that indies are agile and networks are slow. It’s certainly true that 2020 saw indies snaffle some big name client wins. In contrast, being publicly listed, the holding companies’ understandably challenging numbers were very visible. So it’s been easy to sustain a ‘demise of the networks’ narrative.  But how real is that? And what are the implications for marketers? My consultancy, Co:definery, teamed up with creative leadership specialists Curve and research agency BAMM to ask marketers how they viewed network and independent agencies. We also spoke to a range of agency CEOs to get their take. So fetch a cold one, get comfy and let battle commence. 

Agency ownership matters

First up, is indie vs network even a thing? After all, no ‘networks’ or ‘indies’ are created equal. And clearly no two holding companies are alike either. Alongside the size difference between, say, Dentsu and Omnicom, the cultural differences are vast too.  At the same time, although all agencies are facing headwinds, perhaps network shops are enduring more resistance. Because they skew larger than indies, any decline in retainers will be more disruptive for them. Likewise, the bigger the agency, the more that structure and process become a necessary evil. No wonder unhappy network agency clients often cite scale as a perceived reason for dissatisfaction.  Aside from the relative health of indie and network agencies, our research demonstrates that marketers do care about ownership status. Only 15.7% said it wasn’t a factor in agency selection - less than half the amount who said the distinction was critical. And these trends were even more pronounced for higher spenders.  Interesting, right? Let’s unpack why.

Breadth of capability

Network agencies often trade on breadth of service. In response, indies point at competing P&Ls and a thriving, multi-disciplinary freelance market; not least the various ‘collectives’ being formed by top talent exiting big agencies.  Natalie Graeme, co-founded independent Uncommon Creative Studio after leaving WPP’s Grey. She told me: “Although no agency has a load of people sitting there ready to go, networks like to tell clients that they have a ‘man that can’. But that ‘man’ is often just a warm body, rather than the best person for the job. It's about finding the right talent, not just the most available." Sara Tate followed the opposite path, leaving independent creative agency Mother to become CEO at Omnicom’s TBWA in London. She said: “Whether it’s independent or owned by a holding company, no type of agency has the monopoly on assembling the perfect client team; it’s about having the right attitude and process.” Long-time network agency leader Tim Bonnet is now President at Unlimited, an independent group (albeit private equity-backed) that’s larger than many local network agency offices. He points to a cultural difference: "Network agencies focus on keeping client spend within the company or within the holding company’s current offering, but indies have a culture of looking outside for new innovations." Whether essential skills come from inside or out, network agencies’ ability to deliver a breadth of service was endorsed by our research. At 33.2%, this was marketers’ top answer when asked what makes network agencies attractive. In contrast, at 17.6%, breadth of service was only a middle ranking quality of indies.

The role of quality

Regardless of breadth, surely quality and talent are all-important? That’s why agencies love that hackneyed maxim, ‘our people are our most important asset’. Publicis-owned Leo Burnett CEO Charlie Rudd - himself a product of a pre-acquisition BBH - told me: “When you’re running agencies, the only thing you need to worry about is your talent - getting the best people and keeping them motivated, happy and able to do their best work.” But can network agencies really do this? Larissa Vince suggests not. CEO of independent creative agency Now - having joined from Publicis’ Saatchi & Saatchi - she says: “Being handed arbitrary, multi-market pay freezes stops you from rewarding the people who are nailing it.” Interestingly, our research showed that ‘quality of people, thinking and work’ was only a middle ranking feature of network agencies’ appeal. And for bigger spending brands, this slipped to less than a third of the importance of breadth of service.  So are network agencies safe and solid one-stop shops? Not necessarily - quality of people, thinking and work was a similarly middling quality in indies too.

Agility and independence 

If marketers place similar importance on talent in networks and indies, then perhaps how people work matters more? After all, ‘agility’ looms large in this debate.  Many indies claim to be more nimble, suggesting that running a network agency can feel like a straitjacket. As Uncommon’s Natalie Graeme puts it: “Holding companies value predictability, which means less flexibility on models and less commerciality within account management.” Matthew Saunby is the executive creative director at creative agency 2050London. Having worked at networks and indies from AMV and TBWA to BBH and Forever Beta, he’s well placed to offer a balanced view on hierarchy and flexibility:  “There may be extra layers in network agencies, but that rigour can also lead to better work. And although the process can feel quicker in indies, it’s sometimes an illusion, especially if you’re throwing dozens of ideas at the client. If you’re not careful, this ‘agility’ becomes over-collaborative and leads to the safest, most familiar work.”  Our research makes a similarly nuanced case. For the biggest spending brands, 38.5% of marketers cited ‘speed, flexibility and agility’ as a compelling quality in network agencies - second only to breadth of service.  In contrast, while speed, flexibility and agility was just as highly prized within indies, it became less valued by higher spenders.  That’s a plot twist, right? Not only is ‘agility’ far from the sole preserve of indies, bigger spending brands find it more often in network agencies. 

The leadership factor 

Another trope is that indies get closer to your business than network agencies. Is that real? And is it what you actually want?  While the input of founders is surely a given in small indies, perhaps any sense of ‘closeness’ is heightened by the cachet of the owners working on your account. After all, with other people running IT, HR and their building, a network agency CEO might actually be more available.  Regardless of ownership, maybe this boils down to how important you feel to your agency. Are they focused on making money for you or for themselves?  Former ITV marketer Simon Orpin is now CEO at independent media agency Electric Glue. He says: “Indies can focus more on their people, which improves the client product and in turn drives profit. In network agencies, these priorities sometimes run the other way round.” Our research revealed that management style is marketers’ biggest frustration with both indies and network agencies. However, they describe network agencies as being too hands-on and indies not being hands-on enough.  Who saw that one coming? Nope, me neither. 

Rise of the adaptables 

Alongside some nuanced surprises, our research uncovered just as many similarities. After all - newsflash! - difference is relative and preference is subjective. Case in point: as TBWA CEO Sara Tate put it, “if we’re competing with Accenture Interactive, then who’s the indie?”  So what’s the bigger picture for marketers right now?  We found that since the onset of COVID-19, the agency qualities that have increased most in importance were pretty consistent across networks and indies - namely ‘sector experience’, ‘quality of thinking and work’, ‘speed, flexibility and agility’ and ‘stability’.  Ultimately, you need innovative solutions to novel problems. So all agencies need to adapt - quickly. And judging by the transformation briefs they’re bringing to Co:definery, they hear you loud and clear - although be a mate and keep saying it, yeah?

Advice for choosing wisely

The anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” This applies to agency ‘citizens’ within both networks and indies. In 2021, clearly choosing the right agencies has never been more important. And with brilliant, motivated and well organised teams found in myriad places, you need to choose more wisely than ever. So what should marketers bear in mind?  Once the pandemic passes, maintain the new spirit of partnership. Saatchi & Saatchi London’s managing director Sarah Jenkins observes: “COVID-19 has brought us much closer to client problems, so trust and honesty have increased, which has enabled us to be more instinctive.”  Don’t just hire an agency for now. Or as Wunderman Thompson’s UK CEO Pip Hulbert put it: “Understand how the world and consumers are changing, so treat your agency like a marriage and make sure you can grow together.”  If you need ‘agility’, then self-awareness matters. "Knowing what you want is the best way to access speed. You don't need to be big or small - on the client or agency side - you just need to be clear". Wise words from McCann London CEO Sheryl Marjoram.  And having delved into one distinction, here’s one more - from Colenso BBDO chief strategy officer Rob Campbell. “Rather than indie vs network, it’s more a case of whether the agency wants to be at the business end of creativity or the creative end of business. The former is a greater focus on revenue and the latter is a commitment to the power of creativity. Clients just need to understand which kind of agency they want.” So there you have it. In a world where polarised views rarely promote progress, marketers need more nuance and clarity than ever. Let smart agencies challenge you, then seek out the perfect fit, wherever that may be.  If independence or network ownership is mission critical, then follow your chosen path with confidence. Just don’t be guided by preconceptions. After all, with any binary choice, your decision only matters when it really matters.  And for the record, it’s Blur by a mile. ‘Roll With It’ sounded like the theme tune to Only Fools and Horses. Don’t @ me. 
Image: Marketing Week

Don’t lose the race to higher ground

Don’t lose the race to higher ground

Change is essential to accelerate sustainable, post-pandemic growth, but agency CEOs need to shortcut the soul-searching and act fast.      As Elvis Presley once famously asked, “who...

Change is essential to accelerate sustainable, post-pandemic growth, but agency CEOs need to shortcut the soul-searching and act fast. 
 
 
As Elvis Presley once famously asked, “who doesn’t love a misattributed quote?”. And in business, no-one’s words get mis-deployed more than the patron saint of consultants, Peter Drucker. So it’s no surprise that he never said ‘what gets measured gets managed’.  Worse still for those who live by that maxim, the full quote (by academic V. F. Ridgeway) actually warns against it - “What gets measured gets managed - even when it's pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so.” So now that the pandemic has made change a priority for agencies, how can you create a roadmap for growth, without getting bogged down in options, numbers and initiative fatigue? 

The accelerating revolution

Step one is to recognise the scale of the challenge. While a tough market is nothing new, the pressure and urgency you face is growing by the day - especially in larger agencies.  With many CMOs looking to build their brands from the bottom up, their vast demand for content is increasingly being met by in-housing At the same time, global production specialists are winning blue-chip clients with a compelling promise of cost efficiency and speed. And independent agencies have Network agencies in their sights Then there’s COVID-19 - disrupting client spend, accelerating societal change, and redefining the workplace and talent market.  And as if that wasn’t enough, these tectonic shifts also enable the press to maintain a polarised narrative, with smaller agencies cast as ‘agile’ and those they see as traditional labelled as ‘embattled’ or ‘beleaguered’.

Rising internal pressures 

It’s similarly tricky inside the agency. For Network shops in particular, whether you’re still hitting your numbers or not, delivering more of the same is no longer enough. Unfortunately, despite the opportunities created by clients facing ever more complex problems, you’re under-resourced, organic growth is maxed out and new-business is a bloodbath of agencies cutting their own throats.  So giving ideas away and making your money back later is now a non-starter. And there’s only so far you can manage costs downwards.  All this makes further agency consolidation inevitable. And even where the strategic rationale makes sense, let’s not forget that a merged entity can only have one chief.  Without a distinctive three-year growth plan, your destiny will be out of your hands.  So what’s stopping you? 

Get out of your own way 

For too long, agencies have maintained habits, beliefs and cultures that are at best outdated and at worse actively hamper growth. For example, many so-called propositions are no more than straplines that offer clients no meaningful differentiation. And beyond listing their non-conflicted sectors, many agencies can’t even name a discrete target audience.  The age-old obsession with pitching is also self-limiting. There’s plenty of talk about agencies becoming more consultative to get ‘upstream’, but few make the necessary changes to their decision making and commercial model, not to mention their mindset, skills and process.  Similarly, for all the woolly talk of being ‘partners’ to clients, not enough is done to cultivate the conditions required. No wonder the classic ‘land and expand’ approach to new-business often leaves you in a tactical pigeonhole that makes account growth harder.  Ultimately, failing to change these ingrained habits - like chasing any CMO with a budget - makes you complicit in your own commoditisation. 

Define your roadmap to growth

In this context, there’s never been a greater need to reinvent differentiation. But this is about far more than just packaging - it’s about strategy, leadership and company-wide change. Ultimately, clients are now demanding that agencies demonstrate deeper expertise, so building a differentiated Customer Experience (CX) is essential.  Whether that means serious transformation or more nuanced optimisation, you need to define priority improvements across what you do, not just what you say.  That’s why Co:definery partners with creative leadership specialists Curve to deliver the Agency CX Roadmap - a clear plan for holistic adaptation.  Through a short series of immersive workshops, we assess your strengths and weaknesses, identify blind spots and agree prioritised actions, owners and timelines.  By addressing your agency’s unique psychological, operational and cultural hurdles to change, you create a virtuous circle of commercial gains and demonstrably effective leadership. 

Your window of opportunity

The pandemic has heightened the need to address fundamental issues that have been looming for years. But to thrive as the market recovers, you must be decisive.  Transformation can no longer languish in the ‘too hard’ pile and an ‘initiative’ or two won’t cut it. You need to set the right course and bring people with you.  Thankfully, turning the tanker doesn’t mean boiling the ocean. Instead, fast-paced change prospers through targeted intervention. And because every agency is unique, there is no ‘average’, ‘best practice’ sets the bar too low and ‘ASAP’ is too slow. So your roadmap needs to be bespoke - and you need it now.  Our Agency CX Roadmap defines your shortest course to sustainable growth and empowers you and your people to deliver lasting change.  As Elvis sang, ‘a little less conversation, a little more action’. He definitely had agency transformation in mind.
Image: Alejo Storni

Find your shortest course to sustainable growth

Find your shortest course to sustainable growth

To adapt for growth as Covid-19 passes, agencies must develop their own unique customer experience. Step one is to prioritise what needs to change. Even before the pandemic, the traditional...

To adapt for growth as Covid-19 passes, agencies must develop their own unique customer experience. Step one is to prioritise what needs to change. Even before the pandemic, the traditional agency business model was creaking at the seams. Clients had changed how they buy - and from whom - and many agencies were struggling to adapt.  Now Covid-19 has accelerated the need for meaningful change. Whether you’re rebuilding or capitalising on new demand, the urgency has risen sharply. And with many agencies undertaking M&A activity or fine tuning their senior teams, alignment has never been more important. So with the right people and capabilities in place, how can you quickly create a bespoke roadmap for change?

Finding deeper differentiation 

Sustainable growth is increasingly built on differentiation across your entire Customer Experience (CX). So whether that means serious transformation or more nuanced optimisation, you need to define priority improvements across what you do, not just what you say.  That’s why Co:definery has partnered with creative leadership specialists Curve to develop the Agency CX Roadmap - a clear, actionable plan for business-wide change. 

Creating your CX Roadmap

Taking your leadership team through a short series of immersive workshops, the process grades your collective aspirations and progress against five pillars of agency Customer Experience: 
  1. Strategy - e.g. differentiation, internal buy-in, value proposition, purpose, target audience
  2. Leadership - e.g. collaboration, innovation, culture, delegation, self-care and team care, organisation
  3. People + operations - e.g. people strategy, employer brand, diversity, inclusion, talent attraction / development, financial health
  4. Marketing - e.g. thought leadership, consistency, owned media, campaigns
  5. Sales - e.g. metrics & reporting, client development, share of wallet, partner collaboration, upstream targeting, conversion, pricing.
Keeping things structured and fast, we combine your views with our own experience and recommendations to create the following deliverables: 
  1. Agreed strengths, weaknesses and blind spots
  2. Achievable priorities
    • ranked for importance vs. urgency
    • clear owners, actions and deadlines
    • clarity on how success is defined.
Disagreements are resolved, everyone learns a lot and the actions are agreed in the room, so you’re ready to get moving straight away.  And where you need outside help to maximise momentum - and make change stick - then Co:definery and Curve design a bespoke programme of consulting, coaching and mentoring support. 
"The Agency CX Roadmap process was incredibly useful for Engine, giving us a meaningful new focus and energy. By serving up independent, considered and rigorous insights, it sparked frank debate about our future strategy. That impartiality helped us get elephants out of the corner, creating a space of openness and trust where everyone felt comfortable to reimagine or reinvent, without feeling protective of the status quo. I would recommend it highly."

Jim Moffatt, CEO Europe & Asia Pacific, Engine

Set your course for growth

To thrive as the global economy recovers from the pandemic, agencies must stand out in an uncertain and fast-moving competitive landscape. That requires decisive action now.  And because clients are demanding deeper, more demonstrable expertise, building a differentiated Customer Experience is essential.  So the Agency CX Roadmap defines your shortest course to sustainable growth and empowers you and your people to deliver lasting change.  The process creates a safe space to resolve difficult issues. And because you take those decisions together, the shared commitment makes everyone accountable for change.  From there you can accelerate growth with clarity and conviction. Find out more by getting in touch.
Image: David Przybyla

Stop paying agencies for their time

Stop paying agencies for their time

Armed with a new perspective on accountability, marketers have an opportunity to be more innovative, get more done faster and help create a healthier industry. (This article first appeared in...

Armed with a new perspective on accountability, marketers have an opportunity to be more innovative, get more done faster and help create a healthier industry. (This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written for a Marketing audience) They say nostalgia’s not what it was, but I disagree. It’s a joy to look back and see how far we’ve come. Bum bags and white denim, anyone? And remember when we were all legally obliged to mime air quotes whenever we said ‘working from home’? Ah, crazy days. That was in March. Now we’re debating post-pandemic change, it’s clear that we can be productive away from the office. No-one’s saying it’s easy – hashtag: homeschool – but it’s totally doable. That’s created a healthier, more trusting version of accountability. If the output’s great, then it doesn’t matter where we are or, crucially, whether it took five minutes or five hours. In which case, given that marketers and agencies expend so much energy on ratecards and timesheets, might there be real value in refocusing from inputs to outputs?

The limitations of time

Everyone agrees that lawyers suck. Even their mums. Not least because they sell time. And although that puts a ceiling on their revenues – agencies, take note – it also means that their clients bear all the risk. In short, lawyering takes as long as lawyering takes. As I say, they suck. Marketers often feel the same frustration when buying agencies on a time-and-materials basis. As the former RBS CMO David Wheldon neatly put it to me, “you’re paying agencies to get it wrong, when it would cost you less if they got it right”. Having said that, many agencies lack the lawyer’s backbone. By regularly over-servicing and failing to re-scope, they’re effectively giving you a fixed price, so the risk flips back to them. This is most common on short-term projects, but the risk shifts again within retained relationships. Overruns often resurface later on, when the agency waves their timesheets at you, arguing for a fee increase. You might be relaxed about both of these scenarios. After all, de facto fixed fees are the agency’s problem, whilst deferred pleas for more money can be dismissed with a ‘talk to the hand that feeds’. So why bother refocusing on buying outputs? Because modern marketing requires unprecedented scale, breadth and urgency of communications. You need speed, volume and quality – not a futile struggle to measure the hours spent doing it. Handling content production or programmatic media in-house might help, but external thinking from great agencies is still essential. So if they’re struggling to make enough money – regardless of whose fault that is – then you have a problem. And the more you squeeze their ratecards, the more you’re chasing them to the bottom when you need their brains more than ever.

A culture of innovation

Agencies know that their work is like art – it’s the deliverable, not the time spent. They’ve all scrawled game-changing ideas on the back of a napkin. And yet many struggle to track time, defend rates and monetise thinking. But it doesn’t have to be like that. MediaMonks, part of Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital, doesn’t use timesheets, so they couldn’t sell time even if they wanted to. Founder Wesley ter Haar talks about embracing ‘scar tissue’ – they accept the risk of pricing based on outputs, knowing that if they get it wrong, they’ll apply the learnings next time. Think about the cultural difference that creates. From risk-averse covering of costs, to embracing risk and powering innovation. The latter requires confidence, as well as a different commercial model, pricing stack and mindset. Agencies don’t find this transformation easy – especially when they’re under ratecard pressure. But it’s a quicker route to margin growth than competing with management consultancies for technology infrastructure projects. And more to the point, marketers would really value the innovation.

Help agencies to help you

For agencies to evolve in this way, change needs to be systemic – from how they market, sell and price, to how brands choose, pay and evaluate. Clearly everyone on the client side needs to contribute. As Adidas’s global senior director of marketing procurement Barry Byrne told me: “To truly maximise value, the answer is to align marketing, procurement and agencies behind a unified set of KPIs. This ensures all parties work together to deliver the required outputs.” So it’s timely that the World Federation of Advertisers’ Global Sourcing Board recently launched Project Spring, its call for a “revolution” whereby procurement becomes a “trusted partner of brand investment strategy”, not least by pursuing KPIs beyond savings. Encouragingly, they’ve embraced ‘partners’ – aka agencies – as part of that journey too. Turning to marketers, David Wheldon – who’s involved with Project Spring – believes that you have a big role to play: “There are relatively few marketing procurement people that understand both disciplines, so good marketers can educate them on what agencies do and the value they bring.” So if you embrace procurement and help all parties align around business value, then great progress can be made.

Embedding positive change

Being stuck at home during this awful pandemic has made us more mindful of our mental health and productivity. At the same time, we’ve still delivered, despite no-one peering over our shoulders. Building trust, confidence and accountability, this is a hugely positive shift of perspective. Switching the client/agency conversation from inputs to outputs can help make that change stick. To be clear, this is about fixed fees for agreed outputs. Talking about outcomes and payment by results is a different conversation. So let’s leave metrics, attribution and ‘skin in the game’ for another day. Moving away from rates and time spent creates an environment where agencies can thrive. With strong propositions – and clarity on where their expertise begins and ends – they can work smarter, improve margins and attract the best talent. At the same time, you and your procurement colleagues would get breakthrough thinking faster, as well as certainty of price and deliverables – and who doesn’t need a little less uncertainty right now? With any luck, perhaps before long we’ll look back on billable hours with a wry smile, wondering what planet we were on. A bit like with bum bags.
Image: Marketing Week

Time to embrace agency transformation

Time to embrace agency transformation

The pandemic has accelerated the need for fundamental change - this is achieved through nuanced adaptation not wholesale reinvention. Having made tough decisions, supported your team and...

The pandemic has accelerated the need for fundamental change - this is achieved through nuanced adaptation not wholesale reinvention. Having made tough decisions, supported your team and stayed close to evolving client needs, you’ve emerged into this worryingly open-ended ‘new normal’.  Now the big question is what kind of agency you want to be when all this is over. Or more specifically, how to maximise competitive advantage by quickly adapting to the emerging market conditions.  But in amongst a dizzying array of options, constraints and pressures, where should you start and how can you move quickly? 

The overdue evolution

Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t an easy market - brands were demanding more for less, margin pressure was growing and agencies were competing hard for talent. In addition, in-housing was growing fast, new competitors were gaining traction and clients were getting more risk-averse Then along came COVID-19 - disrupting committed spend, accelerating societal change and redefining the workplace. So whether you’re rebuilding or ready to capitalise, there’s never been a greater need to respond to these challenges by upgrading your business model and strengthening your agency brand.  In short, it’s time to reinvent differentiation. But far more than just packaging, this is a fundamental question of strategy, leadership and company-wide adaptation.

Get out of your own way 

For too long, agencies have maintained habits, beliefs and cultures that are at best outdated and at worse actively hamper growth. For example, many so-called propositions are no more than straplines that offer clients no meaningful differentiation. Beyond listing their non-conflicted sectors, many agencies can’t even name a discrete target audience.  The age-old obsession with pitching is also self-limiting. There’s plenty of talk about becoming more consultative to get ‘upstream’, but few agencies make the necessary changes to leadership, commercials and process, not to mention provenance, skills and confidence.  Similarly, for all the woolly talk of being ‘partners’ to clients, not enough is done to cultivate the conditions required. No wonder the classic ‘land and expand’ approach to new-business often leaves you in a tactical pigeonhole that makes account growth harder.  Ultimately, failing to change these ingrained habits - like chasing any client with a budget - makes you complicit in your own commoditisation. 

Define your roadmap to growth

To help you address these challenges, Co:definery works in partnership with creative leadership specialists Curve to deliver the Agency CX Roadmap. The process takes your senior team through a short series of immersive workshops to validate strengths, agree weaknesses and uncover blind spots.  The output is a prioritised roadmap towards your own definition of growth - including clarity on your agency’s unique psychological, operational and cultural hurdles. This enables you to embed your most differentiating expertise into everything you say and do - accelerating progress through a virtuous circle of commercial gains and demonstrably effective leadership.

The window of opportunity

The pandemic has heightened the need to address fundamental issues that have been looming for years. But to thrive as the market recovers, you need to be decisive.  So whether your agency needs discrete optimisation or more profound transformation, change can’t languish in the ‘too hard’ pile. Instead, fast-paced evolution prospers through targeted intervention. And because every solution is unique, there is no ‘average’, ‘ASAP’ is too slow and ‘best practice’ sets the bar too low. So your roadmap must be bespoke.  Ask yourself - if not now, then when? Your competitors will be using this time wisely.
Image: Cindy Tang

Positioning is dead – it’s time to make yourself scarce

Positioning is dead – it’s time to make yourself scarce

Given the rocky road ahead, finding growth won’t be easy, so differentiation will be more critical than ever. Step one is to liberate your agency from outdated disciplines. Clearly the...

Given the rocky road ahead, finding growth won’t be easy, so differentiation will be more critical than ever. Step one is to liberate your agency from outdated disciplines. Clearly the pandemic has hit the agency world hard. And with talk of a second wave in Autumn and the furloughing crutch about to be removed, driving growth will remain a real challenge.  And if you agree that differentiation will be essential, then the priority is how to create it - not least in a market where traditional positioning statements feel so limiting.  No-one’s ‘just’ digital, advertising or design anymore, or SEO, experiential or PR. Being defined by a single discipline is deeply dissatisfying.  It’s the biggest single reason why agencies struggle to stand out. But that said, although it’s a big strategic question, it’s not as important as you think. 

What do you do? 

Nothing divides an agency Board more than identity. What kind of agency are we? Will our clients - or our people - abandon ship if we get our discipline wrong? Someone always argues for being ‘creative’ and another will say “but ‘Creative’ means ‘advertising’”. To which the first replies, “but how else will people know we’re creative?”.  Face-palm.  Adjectives are in play too. ‘Integrated’ gets pitted against its cousins, ‘full-service’ and ‘multi-channel’. Some argue ‘full-service’ only means media-plus-creative. Others worry that ‘integrated’ is shorthand for jack-of-all-trades.  Even the word ‘agency’ ties people in knots. Are you a studio, firm, business, consultancy, company, collective or even - Jesus wept - a ‘group of people’?  Although the intellectual gymnastics are impressive, the endless debate is exhausting. And the result is either a flimsy consensus that no-one likes, or a diktat that no-one uses. 

Everyone does everything

It all used to be so simple - few disciplines, all neatly defined. Clients knew what they wanted and where to find it. But they don’t buy like that any more Now that traditional channel boundaries have melted away, single-discipline positioning statements just don’t do you justice. UX specialists do service design; shopper agencies offer experiential; everyone does social media. And so it goes on.  You become a hostage to how clients choose to define the language - not least in how you optimise for search listings.  Of course it helps if you’re in an emergent discipline, like digital transformation, innovation consultancy or digital product and service design. But even these overlap.  And besides, an in-demand positioning won’t differentiate you for long. Not only will other specialists flood in, but dabblers soon squeeze out the credibility from your expert language. Surely ‘agile’ just means ‘fast-and-cheap’, right?  In recent times, agencies have understandably converged on the multi-disciplinary holy grail of ‘customer experience’, so discipline-based positionings became blurrier still.  And then along came COVID-19. 

The death of positioning

As an accelerant to existing trends, the pandemic is proving to be the final death knell for traditional positioning statements.  Suddenly traditional selling felt crass, so ‘helping’ and ‘empathy’ became essential - as if they weren’t before. But in particular, it became clear that simply listing your disciplines was an ineffective - and often insensitive - way of communicating why clients should choose you.  Your first task was plotting a course through the initial disruption, but now it’s time to maximise differentiation as you power through the ongoing uncertainty.  So what are your options? 

Standout in a positionless world 

Some agencies invent their own pseudo positioning. But if you’re ‘The XYZ Agency’ and have to immediately explain what your all-new ‘XYZ’ discipline actually means, then you’re burying your value not surfacing it.  Others recognise the need to focus on their proposition, defining an outcome for a discrete audience. But they often falter at the first sign of sacrifice, defaulting to offering their generic discipline to anyone with a pulse - maybe adding a superlative for insecurity’s sake.  
  • Awesome PR for ambitious clients 
  • Digital Transformation for the world’s best brands 
  • Advertising for brave CMOs. 
In fairness, none of these are wrong, they’re just stale and undifferentiating. Which causes way more problems than an empty pipeline As a sense-check for standout, ask ‘could the opposite ever be true?’. Clearly ‘so-so SEO for unambitious brands’ would be madness.  The one exception to discipline-for-great-clients falling flat is where you’ve earned serious recognition in your field. Check out Work & Co. Not much of a proposition, but a Who’s Who of clients, with a simple, confident site to match. But for the vast majority of agencies, positioning isn’t enough. So your proposition needs to work much harder. 

Becoming truly client-centric 

By solving a specific audience’s problem, a strong proposition makes your whole business more client-centric and empathetic. It shifts your emphasis from services to outcomes. 
  • We’re spinal surgeons for sportspeople, getting athletes back to the top of their game
  • I’m an artist creating multi-sensory experiences for the blind
  • We’re social media experts for listed companies, here’s what happens if the shit hits the fan. 
In all these examples, a generic positioning - or discipline - only serves to tee-up a far more differentiating proposition, i.e. a defined outcome for someone in particular.  Note that your outcome must be specific to your target client. Just as ‘marketers with money’ isn’t a discrete audience, helping clients ‘sell more stuff’ won’t make you stand out. 

Proving your promise 

Another tip is to hold fire on proof points like services, clients and case studies - they’re the ‘how’ that follow the all-important ‘what’. Until you’ve stated your proposition, how you do it lacks context. You’re selling a meal, not the ingredients.  Back in the day, an ‘advertising’ agency buying an internal comms specialist would have confused their positioning. Were they still an ad agency? An internal-and-external brand specialist? Or - kill me now - the world’s first ‘Intern-vertising™’ agency? But with a modern proposition around ‘reinvigorating retail brands’, acquiring skills that impact shop floor staff would add valuable proof. Their ailing clients don’t care about positioning, as long as that promise is kept. A rose by any other name would stop my retail chain going bust.  So once your outcome captures attention, that’s when proof matters. And it’s not just what you say, but also what you do. Your entire agency customer experience should substantiate your proposition. 

Be hard to ignore

Ultimately, demonstrating your expertise in delivering an outcome is what creates standout. That means scarcity, which gives you leverage to get upstream, leave the pitching merry-go-round and command a premium.  Will you ever be in a market of one? Perhaps. But will endlessly rephrasing your discipline ever create standout? No chance. Although proposition development can be tricky, searching for a unique positioning will drive you to distraction. So accept the fact that all the good words are taken. Just be comfortable with the least worst option.  And the next time your Board is arguing over your discipline, remember that clients don’t give a toss. They ignore dozens of positioning variations every day. But they don’t ignore a powerful proposition - especially now.
Image: Robert F

Get beyond the rhetoric of client/agency ‘partnerships’

Get beyond the rhetoric of client/agency ‘partnerships’

Lockdown offers agencies a unique opportunity – not just to define what genuine partnership looks like, but also how to achieve it. (This article first appeared in Campaign) The subject...

Lockdown offers agencies a unique opportunity – not just to define what genuine partnership looks like, but also how to achieve it. (This article first appeared in Campaign) The subject of agencies being partners not suppliers keeps cropping up. Hence Claire Beale’s rallying cry “to move on from the procurer / supplier mentality ...and redefine what a client / agency partnership really looks like" So without downplaying the pandemic, as many clients are now more willing than ever to collaborate, perhaps it’s the perfect time to finally make this happen. 

Defining partnership 

One hurdle is that the word ‘partnership’ is woolly. Agencies often use it as a lazy synonym for respectful relationships. Others argue that partnership resides in value-based pricing.  The latter has more merit, but many agencies confuse value-based pricing with payment-by-results. And even if you can agree on attribution, sharing a slice of risk and reward says more about incentives than partnership. Clearly skin-in-the-game and mutual respect aren’t trivial, but at best they’re symptoms of a partnership, rather than the causes.  So we need to consider where partnerships come from. 

Make yourself scarce

You can’t be a partner when you’re a commodity. That needs solving first.  Competition has expanded. Clients have changed how they buy. The old rules for standout don’t apply anymore. You can’t just rely on culture, your work or a slogan masquerading as a proposition Instead consider your agency’s entire customer experience. Just like brands in their own crowded markets, simply solving a problem isn’t enough; you need to prove it. Everything you say – and do – should serve as proof of the promise you’re making. Every little helps.  Embracing remote working is a case in point. Surely we’re all finally beyond miming inverted commas whenever we say ‘working from home’. That has big implications for talent, process and accountability.  Imagine if a unique model or having bespoke ways of working – like Croud – could help your ideal clients substantiate your proposition. It’s the same for how you price, sell, hire etc. They’re all opportunities to differentiate. And once your value is seen as scarce, genuine partnership can follow. 

Partnership is bespoke

Dreadful though this crisis is, as Uncle Rory argues with typical poise, it’s also a rare opportunity to change. If you want clients to see you as a valued partner – and heaven knows why you wouldn’t – then you need to get beyond the rhetoric.  Partnership is too important to be vague about. It’s too far-reaching to be left to individuals. And it’s too nuanced to just follow the herd.  Now, I appreciate there are plenty of moving parts here, from proposition, pricing and value, to accountability, culture and the future of work. But that’s precisely the point – bespokely joining the dots is where the value lies.  Ask yourself what kind of agency you’d like to become once all this is over. But don’t stop there. Define what ‘partnership’ means, as well as how it benefits you, your people and your clients.  Finally, do yourself justice – embrace the breadth of change required to make it happen.  Lip service is a disservice.
Image: Campaign

Accelerating out of the crisis

Accelerating out of the crisis

Being ready to thrive once the pandemic passes requires decisive action now. But as well as taking the right decisions, how can you make sure that change sticks? With forethought,...

Being ready to thrive once the pandemic passes requires decisive action now. But as well as taking the right decisions, how can you make sure that change sticks? With forethought, determination and luck, you’ve weathered the immediate crisis and emerged ready for the next phase - getting back to growth.  But in an uncertain market, how can you ramp-up revenue and profit by taking a more progressive, agency-wide approach to differentiation? As ever, the devil’s in the detail. 

Realigning for growth

Modern agency growth requires some reprogramming. And now is the perfect time to bin old-fashioned habits like conflating positioning with propositions or assuming pitching is the best way to grow.  This demands a more deliberate, business-wide connection between strategy and tactics. The smart decisions you take now will be wasted without relentless execution.  So you may need to realign your strategy, marketing and sales, plus roles, responsibilities and metrics, as well as structures, process and pricing. Also remember the drivers of change - from culture and behaviours, to mindsets and confidence - all in a WFH world.  And don’t forget your own headspace. Pulled in different directions at the best of times, having new worries and fears right now is natural - as is feeling unable to share them with colleagues. Perhaps you’re exhausted, but can’t allow the cracks to show? Or maybe you’re taking on too much of the burden yourself?  Regardless of where you start optimising for growth, even if you don’t need wholesale change, the nuances matter. 

Choose the right perspective

Getting good advice will accelerate your progress. So embrace your mentors, peers and networks - especially now that their experience and objectivity are so necessary.  Even just saying your challenges out loud will organise your thoughts and lead to better decisions. And a timely observation or suggestion from someone outside your personal vortex can be game-changing.  If you’re lacking an outside perspective, you have a range of options. But choose wisely, because compromise may be required. 
  • Many good advisors lack experience with modern agencies of different sizes, disciplines and life-stages 
  • Consider the breadth, depth and bespokeness of growth advice - NEDs often maintain a distance, mentors are less operational, Business Development consultants have a single focus 
  • Most require a hefty investment and long-term commitment.
These distinctions matter. Not only is every agency different, but also CEOs and Founders need different advice at different times for different reasons.  No wonder that on any given day, you might need a blend of consulting, coaching and mentoring. From shaping strategy to crafting that critical email; setting priorities to getting buy-in; handling bad news to making a plan.  And it shouldn’t cost the Earth to have someone to call.  Co:definery’s Growth Advisory Service is designed around these nuances - and to realise a significant new opportunity for growth. 

Differentiate through customer experience

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes in how clients buy. They’re facing new problems with less money and higher risk.  This creates an opportunity, but only if your agency can adapt. For example: 
  • Make the brief, don’t take the brief
  • Help don’t sell
  • People don’t buy people, they buy experts
  • Being easy to buy is paramount, but ‘land-and-expand’ can hold you back. 
This progressive approach to differentiation may not be news to you, but it’s moved from important to critical.  So how can you make these changes quickly? By considering your agency’s entire customer experience.  Just like brands, simply stating your case isn’t enough; you need to prove it. Once you’re clear on the promise you’re making to clients, everything you say - and do - should serve as proof. 

Create your roadmap 

Now more than ever, expertise defines your market, but it’s your provenance that drives revenue. Co:definery’s Growth Advisory Service is based on our Agency CX Roadmap - a process for embedding your provenance into every aspect of your business.  With this roadmap in place, agency leaders can: 
  • Validate strategy and define priority changes
  • Implement at the right speed and make change stick
  • Address the psychological, operational and cultural hurdles to growth
  • Accelerate change with proven frameworks, designed for agencies to adapt.
Co:definery’s Growth Advisory Service offers business-wide guidance for growth, designed around you and delivered where you need it most. 

Your personal trainer for growth

To thrive as the market recovers decisive action now. But focusing on a grand pivot or tactical tweaks won’t optimise growth. And one-size-fits-all advice won’t help you connect the two.  Agencies are people businesses. Although they often face similar challenges, every solution is unique. There is no ‘average’, ‘ASAP’ is too slow and ‘best practice’ sets the bar too low.  Both big picture and hands-on, Co:definery’s Growth Advisory Service is like having a personal trainer. You get bespoke guidance combined with accountability for change.  It’s delivered remotely via tailored three-month sprints and month one is offered with a money-back guarantee.  To find out more, get in touch.
Image: Tim Gouw

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