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Decommoditising your agency is easier than you think

Decommoditising your agency is easier than you think

So-called ‘oversupply’ in the agency market can feel like an unavoidable reality. But once you're ready to change, the solutions are well within reach. I don’t know about you, but I...

So-called ‘oversupply’ in the agency market can feel like an unavoidable reality. But once you're ready to change, the solutions are well within reach. I don’t know about you, but I first heard of 'commodities' in the movie, Trading Places, which is - by some distance - the best festive film ever (sorry not sorry, fans of Die Hard). If you haven't seen it, please stop reading and go and rectify this glaring omission. I'll wait. Welcome back and you're welcome. So, commodities - goods or services that are indistinguishable other than by price. Why am I telling you this? Because agencies are increasingly seen as commodities - not just by clients, but also, worse still, by the people that run them.  This can’t continue without a lot of agencies disappearing. So how can you make sure yours isn’t one of them? 

Our unhealthy market

Has your agency ever aimed for differentiation but ended up with buzzword bingo? Have you despaired at merciless clients eroding your margins by labelling your market as 'oversupplied'?  This is what being commoditised feels like - indistinguishable, other than by price. The agency business model has become fundamentally misaligned with the market. Most offer unspecialised services that clients struggle to tell apart. This creates the margin pressure that so many agency leaders are wrestling with. Commoditisation is especially evident in new-business. Much agency marketing is so generic that it leaves clients exasperated. Fit hinges on subjective chemistry. And when conversations do progress, although clients highly value strategy and concepts, fearful agencies donate these as gifts.  Once the work is won, clients place far less value on production and distribution, making it even harder to recoup your needy upfront investment. And when the work goes live, despite genuine client demand, agencies often lack the tools or the inclination to provide measurement and optimisation. Aside from the lost revenue opportunity, it also ensures that the legacy of their contribution is left for others to decide. So from start to finish, this desperate, undifferentiated and self-commoditising lifecycle paints a bleak picture. The big question is: how can you reverse out of this commercial cul-de-sac?

Reframing the problem 

This was the focus of a workshop that Co:definery ran for Worldwide Partners Inc. at their global conference in Amsterdam.  WPI is a global network of independent agencies. Their members understand that being indies gives them a tangible advantage in taking decisive action on the commoditisation issue.  Our challenge to the 90 agency leaders present was to reframe the problem and create options for progress. In just one hour, we aligned on three fundamental priorities and generated a range of potential routes to explore:  How do we refine our business strategy? 
  • How might we apply our unique superpowers and the value our agency creates?
  • how might we engage and educate procurement so they become collaborators more often?
How do we make better margins?
  • How might we bill based on value, not cost?
  • How might we premium-ise our offering as an agency?
How do we build agency confidence?
  • How might we break the mindset of being ‘servants’ to clients and show that our time is of value?
  • How might we cultivate pride in our contribution and ownership of our clients’ business success?
What's most striking here is that this thinking isn’t revolutionary. Although applying these ideas makes a profound difference to commercial performance, many agency leaders outside this conference are still shrugging their shoulders and accepting the status quo.  So what’s stopping you? 

Non-barriers to change

Perhaps the case for change is still unclear? Despite being jaded by the hamster wheel of client demands, margin pressure and finding talent, maybe you’re not convinced that change is possible?  To be frank, that’s just not good enough - life's too short to leave your destiny to chance. Alternatively, maybe the solutions feel too hard. Are you worried about change being disruptive - the classic 'changing the tyres on a moving bus'? But remember businesses aren't buses; there’s no cosy maintenance depot. You can only change while the engine's running. Besides, changing the tyres is far better than skidding headlong into a ravine. Seriously, can you afford to stay on your current course?  

No strategy, no advantage

The fundamental issue here is strategy - or more specifically, that a huge number of agencies simply don't have one. And that’s the root cause of commoditisation.  From fuzzy me-too propositions, to a reluctance to choose between priorities, audiences or revenue models, agencies steadfastly refuse to identify and stick to a single direction. Defining a focus is pretty much antithetical to the ruinous anything-is-possible optimism that fills agency veins. To put it another way, if you want to stand out and command a premium through creativity, innovation and variety, then you need to maintain far healthier boundaries around the problems you solve and who you work for.  Thankfully, if you're ready to change - as WPI’s members are - then you're already halfway to the kind of meaningful competitive advantage that most of your rivals believe is impossible. Co:definery’s Acceleration Workshop is a powerful next step. Without spoiling the plot, Trading Places ends with our heroes toasting their success on an idyllic tropical beach. They've mastered commodities and reshaped their future in just under two hours. It shouldn't take you much longer.
Image: Paramount
 

Executive coaching for commercial growth

Executive coaching for commercial growth

To run a consistently differentiated and commercially confident agency, the most powerful catalyst is your own leadership. How many ‘must read’ books are piling up by your bed or on your...

To run a consistently differentiated and commercially confident agency, the most powerful catalyst is your own leadership. How many ‘must read’ books are piling up by your bed or on your Kindle? How many podcasts are cued up and shrieking for your attention?  Imagine all those game-changing nuggets, just sitting there waiting to be discovered. If only you had a free week, month or lifetime to clear the backlog, embed the learnings and blossom into the leader you could be.  Good luck with that. Here’s the good news. If you want to accelerate growth, the biggest breakthroughs are far easier to access: they come from within.

The pressure to perform

Given the challenges that agencies face in this volatile, uncertain and ultra-competitive market, it's no wonder that leadership is far from a bed of roses. The classic truth that it's 'lonely at the top' has never felt so real. Steering the ship and motivating your team increasingly require a more modern approach. Authenticity and openness are nuanced qualities that your prior bosses offered little by way of example. Similarly, inclusivity and empathy must be carefully balanced with traditional drive and focus. So you've never been under more pressure - to evolve, to make important decisions, and to constantly nurture psychologically safe teams that perform at their best. For these reasons, now more than ever, your beliefs and habits are the foundations of your agency’s success.

Building commercial confidence

The reality is that highly profitable agencies consistently exhibit very different behaviours to the rest. To create a clear competitive advantage and embed genuine differentiation, leaders must upgrade their mindset. Firstly, you must liberate yourself from traditional, limiting beliefs - like all agencies essentially being the same, or that 'people buy from people'. These unhealthy maxims - and many others like them - have a self-commoditising effect. If you believe them, then you embody them - and so do the people you need to inspire; inside and outside your agency. So if you want your agency to stand out, partner with high quality clients, and command a premium, then you must address your personal blockers and limiting beliefs. But how can you harness your strengths and resources to sustain this kind of shift? And where can you find the hidden leverage that transforms an action from a 'should' to a 'must'?  The answer is Executive Coaching with a commercial focus.

What is Executive Coaching?

Your leadership will flourish when you connect your personal motivations with the competitive reality of the agency marketplace. Co:definery’s Executive Coaching helps you create new mental pathways and behavioural patterns for individual fulfilment and long-term commercial success. It’s thought-provoking and creative partnership that inspires you to maximise your personal and professional potential. Through direct challenge or gentle prompting, together we shine a light on what you haven't seen before. We connect dots, clarify problems and bring hidden priorities into focus. By exploring your motivations, beliefs and emotional drivers in the context of your commercial pressures, we agree clear objectives with an actionable roadmap and hold you accountable for consistent progress.

How coaching works

Step one is an initial Discovery Call. This is a conversation about your priorities and hurdles. It establishes connection and confirms your readiness to escape the daily firefighting and commit to the process. From here, we design the partnership around you. 
  • Senior leaders often choose 30 minute 'power sessions', where the onus is on you to show-up with a hot topic. Others prefer one-hour sessions to explore at their own pace
  • For most people, a fortnightly rhythm feels right. More so than weekly, this allows enough breathing space to reflect and complete tasks
  • Calls are scheduled around your personal commitments, deadlines and energy levels. We also offer additional ad hoc 'pep talks' and urgent text message support
  • How much coaching do you need? This depends on your goals. So like a personal trainer, we’ll refine our duration, frequency and format to find the model that works best for you.
This flexibility is our commitment to you. In return, for a coaching partnership to succeed, you must make it a priority. That’s why part of the process is ensuring that you’re focused, energised and resourced. 

Thriving in a market of one

Just as change starts at the top, so does competitive advantage. To drive sustainable growth, your values and self-knowledge are pivotal. As humans, our greatest behavioural driver is to be consistent with who we believe we are. Your self-image defines how you show-up. That’s how reframing your beliefs impacts your daily decisions, which in turn enables your agency to thrive in a ‘market of one’.  This is why Executive Coaching must be measured by your success. Change is all very well, but it has to translate into progress.  Our model gives you certainty on where you’re headed, a clear roadmap to chart your progress and a partner for each step of the journey.  If you're interested in Co:definery's Executive Coaching, then do get in touch
Image: Chuttersnap
 

How to create agency-wide clarity

How to create agency-wide clarity

Whether you need a full repositioning, improved differentiation or just a sharper way of explaining what you do, clear strategic expression is transformative. At last count, Co:definery has...

Whether you need a full repositioning, improved differentiation or just a sharper way of explaining what you do, clear strategic expression is transformative.
At last count, Co:definery has taken somewhere north of 50 agencies through positioning and proposition development projects. Our 'Narrative Framework' is a refined, proven model for achieving a clear, robust conclusion at speed. The process applies the following eight principles: 1. Solve the language barrier - From 'positioning', 'purpose' and 'proposition', to 'mission', 'vision' and 'values', the language around agency strategy and differentiation is vague and varied. All these words get tossed around like confetti. So step one is complete clarity on the outcome you want and its component parts. 2. Connect the dots - Once you're aligned on the scope and how you're defining it, knowing how to connect all these moving parts is mission critical. As the old joke goes, if you're playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order, then you'll confuse yourself, your team and your market. 3. Focus on the future - Get clear on where you're headed and why. Growth is not a strategy. Neither is improving performance. Our process defines your destination - commercially and personally - including what success looks and feels like, as well as the mindsets and behaviours you'll need to sustain it. 4. Proposition is strategy - Your proposition isn’t just packaging, it’s the most succinct distillation of your business strategy. David Ogilvy said 'the essence of strategy is sacrifice', so your agency can't be all things to all people. A strong proposition describes the problem you solve and for whom - its power comes from what it excludes. 5. Know your audience - If you can't define your audience, then you don't have a strategy. This doesn't mean trite segments like 'clients', 'talent' and 'pitch consultants'. And it certainly doesn't mean trivial non-insights like ‘decision makers with money’. From stand-out and profit, to leadership and process, having an ownable audience supercharges your agency's focus. 6. Believe in something - Whether you call it your 'why', your 'purpose' or just a plain old 'point of view', having a perspective is often foundational - for culture, differentiation and attracting talent. But no-one wants to hear some hackneyed could-the-opposite-ever-be-true soundbite. Be prepared to polarise - it's scary, but worth it. 7. Get functional to get creative - Progress on agency strategy often stalls by wordsmithing too soon. Rushing into writing is a painful way of discovering that your underlying direction lacks clarity. So we strip out the jargon and stress-test the thinking until it's client-centric and bulletproof - creating a clear brief for creative expression to follow. 8. Narrative not tablets of stone - Amateur agency sellers get eaten alive by professional client-side buyers. One reason for this is rigid elevator pitches that rely on word-perfect delivery. Learning lines acts as a straitjacket - especially if you're relying on nuanced emphasis of some random superlative. Baking in some freedom will empower your team - it's a story, not a memory test.

What you can expect

Co:definery's Narrative Development projects are highly collaborative sprints, run with CEOs, founders and your senior leadership teams:  Alignment - We start by speaking with everyone on a one-to-one basis. Even if you think you're aligned, there will be gaps to uncover. On the flip side, where you think you're misaligned, the chasms you see are rarely as wide as you fear. Either way, a common starting point is essential. Challenge - Expect around 2-4x days of immersive workshops, with provocative exercises and plenty of challenging questions. Client-centric - We speak to your clients at key points, gathering ideas and stimulus, as well as validating progress. Certainty - Our fixed price process is structured and fast-paced, with explicit deliverables agreed before we start. It's not for everyone, so we ensure you're 100% clear before you commit, tailoring a range of options to your precise priorities. Added value - Alongside your deliverables, the workshops themselves are a learning opportunity. Part of taking strategic decisions is unpacking risks and benefits, so expect to explore how best to accelerate implementation - for example in leadership, new-business and pricing.

Take action

Our model and external perspective transforms Narrative development from a slow stagger into a short sprint. Together we move fast, build energy and enjoy creating the future of your business. You get the direction and clarity you need, with specific, pre-defined deliverables, ready to move into implementation with momentum and conviction. To discuss your agency's Narrative, get in touch.
Image: Michael Dziedzic
 

For competitive advantage: measure twice, cut once

For competitive advantage: measure twice, cut once

Improving your agency’s competitive advantage requires complete conviction - from strategy to practical action. Co:definery's Acceleration Workshop gives you exactly that. As a leader, all...

Improving your agency’s competitive advantage requires complete conviction - from strategy to practical action. Co:definery's Acceleration Workshop gives you exactly that. As a leader, all your decisions matter - especially in times of change. And if you're looking to improve commercial performance, then the stakes are higher still. So clarity is paramount.  If you’re rethinking your strategy, then what does success really look like? Where should you start? And what's the ideal process? Similarly, if you’re about to execute, then how do you accelerate decisive action, minimise disruption and reap the commercial rewards ASAP? In either case, a wrong move will cost you time, money and credibility. So how can you create certainty at speed? 

Searching for conviction

Setting agency strategy is rarely straightforward. With multiple voices and competing priorities, building collective conviction takes effort.  Firstly there’s discomfort to overcome. Alongside your own nagging doubts, your senior team will have their own concerns - which are often unspoken - like how the proposed changes will land with different stakeholders, like prospects, current clients, talent or the press.  A second source of uncertainty is a lack of outside perspective, especially if your senior team has been in place for a while. This creates a double bind. Without objective external guidance, plans can lack innovation and competitor context. Likewise, the absence of an outside view often causes senior teams to doubt what are otherwise valid ideas.  This is why alignment matters. Before agreeing the right answers, you need clarity on the right questions. In short, you need to define the fewest steps with the biggest payoff. And you need to start yesterday.

Find clarity at pace

Co:definery's Acceleration Workshop injects clarity and certainty into your desire for commercial improvement. Designed for senior leadership teams, it’s a structured half-day session that applies deep experience and broad perspective to align and boost your collective thinking.  Together we design clear actions based on two key principles for creating a sustainable competitive advantage:
  • Focus where you'll create maximum impact.
  • Set tangible actions that don't reinvent the wheel or needlessly disrupt business-as-usual. 
Our Acceleration Workshop has three parts:
  • Define your ideal future
    • Beyond arbitrary numbers and fluffy goals (e.g. being ‘the best’), we uncover motivating, agency-wide outcomes
    • A good strategy specifies obstacles, so we get super clear on the hurdles you’ll need to overcome
    • Our Transformation framework challenges your thinking, validates progress and uncovers gaps 
  • Set priorities 
    • From wish-list to must-do list, we set priorities that will best focus your competitive punch
    • You can’t do everything at once, so we agree realistic timelines 
  • Design your action plan
    • Achievable milestones build momentum, so priorities are broken down into manageable actions with clear deadlines 
    • Accountability accelerates change, so we agree who’s best placed to own, manage and contribute, as well as where you need external support

Acceleration Workshop deliverables

Practical, hands-on and fast-paced, Co:definery’s Acceleration Workshop delivers a roadmap towards a powerful, sustainable competitive advantage.  By co-creating the destination, you and your Board get an instant hit of clarity and momentum. And everyone is fully bought into the journey, including the essential actions, owners and timelines, as well as where external help is required.  Often the next step is to co-design a one-off consulting project or plan a series of connected sprints, including coaching and mentoring support to make change stick. For more information, get in touch
Image: Shiro Hatori
 

Help your team and help yourself

Help your team and help yourself

Extract yourself from the day-to-day by helping your rising stars step-up.  How often do you find yourself on calls thinking ‘I really shouldn’t need to be on this’? Much too...

Extract yourself from the day-to-day by helping your rising stars step-up.  How often do you find yourself on calls thinking ‘I really shouldn’t need to be on this’? Much too often. But delegating is never quite as easy as it should be - especially if your next generation of leaders isn’t quite ready to step-up. In fact, according to research from CEO World, 62% of CEOs don’t believe that their mid-level leaders - the so-called ‘B-Suite’ - are good enough. And it gets worse - your B-Suite are struggling. Like, *really* struggling. 60% feel ‘used up’ every day, whilst 71% feel overworked, 69% are stressed and 54% feel unsupported. At the same time, only 50% of mid-level leaders feel confident to lead and 37% don’t want to stay in management. To be fair to the B-Suite, they’ve often been promoted sooner and with less training than previous generations. Not to mention feeling their way into hybrid working, with welcome but tricky societal change accelerating all around them. No wonder imposter syndrome is the issue that young leaders most often bring to Co:definery's coaching and mentoring. Your rising stars are exhausted, isolated and acutely aware of your lack of faith. And in this crazy talent market, you can’t afford for them to leave for pastures new.

So what can you do?

Rather than endlessly getting dragged into the weeds - and doing your strategic thinking at the weekends - another option is to offer them a different kind of support. B-Suite Bootcamp is Co:definery's Group Mentoring Programme for future leaders, new managers and rising stars.  Blending professional and personal development, Bootcamp is proven to help participants feel more confident and capable in their roles.  For six weeks, we challenge and inspire them. Everyone plays an essential role in a cohort with a common cause - to dig deep, embrace their blockers and design new ways of thriving at work.
“An eye-opening course that challenged me and my thinking around how I work and how that can improve my team”
Each week, we co-create the next step in participants’ personalised ‘Game Plan’ - from motivation and goal setting, to mastering time, maximising their influence and creating long-lasting habits. 

B-Suite Bootcamp benefits:

  • Immersive mentoring with industry experts
  • Content tailored to participants’ real-world priorities 
  • Delivers a personalised, step-by-step plan to thrive at work
  • Exclusive access to innovative tools and techniques
  • Membership of the B-Suite Bootcamp community platform
  • Recommended further reading for deeper learning

Programme overview:

The programme builds over six weeks. Each workshop provides innovative tools and techniques that focus on a specific aspect of thriving at work:
  1. Making work more fulfilling
  2. Reimagining goals
  3. Solving the time scarcity delusion
  4. Reframing blockers
  5. Creating professional influence
  6. Building habits and giving back
Participants finish Bootcamp with everything they need to embed lasting change - a refreshed mindset, their own practical plan and a new network of supportive peers.
“Bootcamp has been massively helpful to me. The tools and techniques are directly transferable to my role as a leader“
Our next cohort starts in February 2023 and places are strictly limited - secure your spot now.

Additional testimonials: 

“Bootcamp provided a hugely valuable framework for reorganising my goals, allowing me to plot a more strategic future. The tools we learned are simple and actionable, and they also build into a broader vision. I'll be referring back to what I've learned again and again”  “A smart, holistic and multidimensional way to think about the tricky art of personal change. Equally applicable to self and work, Bootcamp will challenge you and help you grow into the person you want to be”
Image: Halfpoint
 

Can clients explain your proposition?

Can clients explain your proposition?

If you show clients what you truly believe in, then they'll repay your faith in yourself. Last month I gave a talk to a group of agency CEOs. My deck included a slide of famous agency...

If you show clients what you truly believe in, then they'll repay your faith in yourself. Last month I gave a talk to a group of agency CEOs. My deck included a slide of famous agency propositions. When I say 'famous', I mean the agencies, not their propositions - without the logos, no-one could tell me whose was whose. The audience looked pretty uncomfortable - which, of course, was precisely the point. Really, agencies need to do better here. Thankfully, fast forward to last week in Cannes and - just like buses - two lovely counter examples arrived at once. And they both offer important lessons for agency leaders who are seeking competitive advantage. 

Give clients what they need

Firstly, I watched a panel discussion where Logitech's CMO Najoh Tita-Reid was asked by Adweek's Shannon Miller to share why she hired Virtue, who were represented on the panel by their co-president, Chris Garbutt. For context, Virtue talk about 'building brands from inside culture' - a claim that’s given real credibility by them being part of Vice Media.  And in her answer to ‘why Virtue?’, Najoh echoed this proposition. She explained that she’d been looking for “a partner at the centre of culture - a superpower we don’t yet have”. A great example of agency differentiation meeting a clear client need.

Powering the client's vision

Also at Cannes, I was delighted to be part of a joint initiative between Campaign and Worldwide Partners Inc., the global community of independent agencies. They convened a powerful group of senior marketers and agency owners to explore how both sides could improve partnerships, work and outcomes. More on that in the write-up from Gideon Spanier, Maisie McCabe and John Harris. Spoiler: it was empowering and energising stuff. Anyway, I was sat in a team that included Formula E CMO Henry Chilcott, who works with the independent creative agency, Uncommon. As part of the workshop, he shared that when he'd joined the business, he explicitly needed an agency that understood how to “build a brand that people wanted to exist” - which is precisely Uncommon's proposition. No wonder they stood out to Henry - and they’ve clearly built a strong client / agency partnership together. 

Going beyond straplines

Now, quite rightly, clients like to say nice things about their agencies, especially when they're sat together in public forums. But far from politely toeing the party line, these examples demonstrate deep differentiation. Agencies talking about culture is nothing new, but Virtue's connection with Vice gives them a depth of provenance that represents a clear and ownable point of difference. In Uncommon's case, even without Virtue's birthright differentiator, they've consistently shown that, alongside being a highly creative and effective agency, they seek out clients who see the world the same way they do. Five years ago, soon after Uncommon launched, I sat down with two of their three co-founders, Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme, to talk about propositions and differentiation. Their passion for 'brands that people in the real world actually wish existed' was obvious. And now time has shown that it's deeply rooted. I'd also argue that this depth of belief is just as critical to their success as their ability. Great agencies are selective in who they work for and then staunchly defend what they believe in.

Stand for something

Generic straplines about 'applying creativity', working with 'ambitious clients' or creating 'meaningful brands' won't take your agency where you want to go. They reveal an endemic insecurity that powers the misplaced need to be all things to all people. In fact, the opportunity to stand-out is very much within every agency's grasp, as long as you're willing to define what you believe in - and then promote, defend and celebrate it every day, Ask yourself, who are you for? Who are you not for? What matters to you? The clichéd need to say 'no' more often goes way beyond just qualifying out of pitches - in fact, saying 'no' is essential to strategy. By sticking to your strengths and priorities, you'll consistently deliver work that demonstrates your beliefs and proposition. This creates a virtuous circle whereby you keep attracting the right brands and the best talent, and make better profits. So, it's nice if your peers can pick out your schtick in a crowd. But it's even better if your ideal clients hear it and then give you a call.
Image: Dilok Klaisataporn
 

Ready to write? Where strategy and expression meet

Ready to write? Where strategy and expression meet

When it comes to refreshing your agency positioning, rushing into the writing is a painful way of discovering that your underlying direction lacks clarity.  Having helped well north of 50...

When it comes to refreshing your agency positioning, rushing into the writing is a painful way of discovering that your underlying direction lacks clarity.  Having helped well north of 50 agencies develop their differentiation strategies, Co:definery is often asked to ‘take a quick look’ when CEOs and Founders are close to revealing their internally defined new positioning.  First of all, hats off to any leader who seeks an external view here. It demonstrates an appreciation of how important it is to express yourself clearly, distinctively and, better still, with meaningful differentiation. After all, despite this stuff being the day job for many agencies, it’s never easy to turn the lens on yourself These conversations tend to go one of two ways. Either their strategy is nailed down and they just want a sounding board to fine-tune the expression, or there’s a nagging doubt - often some Board disharmony - that the thinking isn’t quite where it needs to be.  To work out which boat you’re in, what should you consider? The following three questions might help. 

What do you actually do?

From a strategy point of view, expressing what you actually do is the most important question of all. It's also where your wording matters least. Focus eats elegance for breakfast here. It doesn’t get more fundamental than clarity on where your agency’s heading and how you plan to get there.  More specifically, how are you defining your core strategic building blocks, like positioning and proposition? How do they fit together? What services do you offer? How do they serve as reasons for clients to believe your proposition? Jargon-free, functional language works wonders here. If you can’t express what you do clearly - to an intern, your bank manager or your mates in the pub - then your thinking probably isn't crisp enough.

Who's your target audience?

In all honesty, agencies are often terrible at defining their target audience. Answers tend to be superficial and self-limiting.  Even excluding the bizarrely prevalent ‘decision makers with money’, other responses based solely on sector or job titles can be equally unhelpful. It’s not that these are wrong; they just rarely demonstrate enough discretion. That makes targeting, lead generation and new-business qualification pretty meaningless. Going too detailed doesn't help either. Of course, pen portraits of key buyers can add texture to your marketing plan, but not if they're the same buyers - and the same textures - that your competitors are bombarding.  Ultimately, differentiation is based on demonstrating specific expertise to the specific people who need it. That's why focusing on a need, use case or belief is often a far richer space to explore. Bottom line - if you can't define a discrete, ownable audience, then you don't have a strategy at all.

What makes you different?

This question often polarises agency leaders. Remarkably, many don't even believe that differentiation is possible. They look at their competitors and see a dispiriting sea of sameness - similar services, similar experience, similar words. So they default to a watered-down distinctiveness - following outdated norms like pithy but opaque straplines that demand explanation. If you immediately follow-up your elevator pitch with '...and what we mean by that is...', then you're in trouble. This differentiation defeatism is madness. At best, it's woolly thinking. But at worst, it's a failure of leadership and imagination. Ironically, far from demonstrating the impossibility of standout, in fact a homogenised market makes it easy. If everyone says the same thing, then saying anything different will ensure you stand out. So if you can't define what makes you tangibly different, then you're certainly not ready to start writing about it. That way, word soup beckons.

Strategic rigour, clearly expressed

Whether or not these questions are familiar, Co:definery can help. From vision and strategy, through to expression, writing and rollout, a robust process can help you create a powerful outcome quickly. If your strategy is sound and all you need is help with expression, then a speedy sense-check and some tone of voice guidance is all easily done.  And if your underlying direction isn’t completely clear, then it’s critical to resolve that now, before you get into expression and rollout.  Of course, if you’ve already put in plenty of work, then you won’t want to feel like you’re going back to the start. But you’re really not. None of your time spent to date has been wasted. And more importantly, the pain caused by the wrong strategy will be far greater than the frustration of refining before you proceed. Like good advertising being the best way to kill a bad product, endless rewrites are a costly way to diagnose a lack of focus.
Image: Denis Novikov
 

B-Suite Bootcamp: Helping future leaders thrive

B-Suite Bootcamp: Helping future leaders thrive

Boost agency performance with our fast-paced group mentoring programme, designed to help rising stars perform better, grow confidence and feel more fulfilled in their work. Sitting just below...

Boost agency performance with our fast-paced group mentoring programme, designed to help rising stars perform better, grow confidence and feel more fulfilled in their work. Sitting just below the C-Suite, the so-called ‘B-Suite’ is mission-critical to agency performance. When these future leaders thrive, they influence every aspect of the day-to-day. This in turn liberates senior leaders to focus on the bigger picture.  But the B-Suite have a lot on their plates. As well as often running teams for the first time, they’re also navigating hybrid work and changing workplace values. No wonder many are wrestling with productivity, purpose and confidence.  This is why traditional skills training may not offer the best support. Once the B-Suite return to their desks, if learnings aren’t grounded in their wider personal context, then change rarely sticks.  That’s why Co:definery’s B-Suite Bootcamp is different. 

What is B-Suite Bootcamp? 

B-Suite Bootcamp is our Group Mentoring Programme for future leaders, new managers and rising stars.  Blending professional and personal development, Bootcamp is proven to help participants feel more confident and capable in their roles.  For six weeks, we challenge and inspire them. Everyone plays an essential role in a cohort with a common cause - to dig deep, embrace their blockers and design new ways of thriving at work.
“An eye-opening course that challenged me and my thinking around how I work and how that can improve my team”
Each week, we co-create the next step in participants’ personalised ‘Game Plan’ - from motivation and goal setting, to mastering time, maximising their influence and creating long-lasting habits. 

Participant benefits:

  • Immersive group mentoring from agency experts
  • Content tailored to participants’ real-world priorities 
  • Delivers a personalised, step-by-step plan to thrive at work
  • Exclusive access to innovative tools and techniques
  • Membership of the B-Suite Bootcamp community platform
  • Recommended further reading for deeper learning

What to expect:

The programme builds over six weeks. Each workshop provides innovative tools and techniques that focus on a specific aspect of thriving at work:
  1. Making work more fulfilling
  2. Reimagining goals
  3. Solving the time scarcity delusion
  4. Reframing blockers
  5. Creating professional influence
  6. Building habits and giving back
Participants finish Bootcamp with everything they need to embed lasting change - a refreshed mindset, their own practical plan and a new network of supportive peers.
“Bootcamp has been massively helpful to me. The tools and techniques are directly transferable to my role as a leader“
Our next cohort starts in February 2023 and places are strictly limited - secure your spot now.

Praise for B-Suite Bootcamp: 

“Bootcamp provided a hugely valuable framework for reorganising my goals, allowing me to plot a more strategic future. The tools we learned are simple and actionable, and they also build into a broader vision. I'll be referring back to what I've learned again and again”  “A smart, holistic and multidimensional way to think about the tricky art of personal change. Equally applicable to self and work, Bootcamp will challenge you and help you grow into the person you want to be”
 
Image: BlackSalmon
 

Defusing your leadership timebomb

Defusing your leadership timebomb

To retain, empower and - crucially - trust their future leaders, agencies must rethink how they nurture and develop mid-level talent.  At a recent conference for agency CEOs and founders, I...

To retain, empower and - crucially - trust their future leaders, agencies must rethink how they nurture and develop mid-level talent.  At a recent conference for agency CEOs and founders, I asked the audience to raise their hands if they'd been on a call in the last week where they'd thought 'I shouldn't need to be on this’. Almost everyone's hand went up.   This is no surprise - agency leaders often feel 'stuck in the weeds'; whether they're too beholden to the whims of clients or simply struggling to elevate themselves beyond the warm reassurance of being a practitioner. So being dragged into the day-to-day is nothing new. But in recent times, a new reason has emerged: a lack of trust in your mid-level leaders. Your confidence in the so-called 'B-Suite' is not in a good place.  Clearly that’s not good for business. 

Exhausted and considering an exit 

Recent research from CEO World offered some pretty sobering stats on this issue. For one, the B-Suite are close to burnout. 60% feel ‘used up’ every day, whilst 71% feel overworked, 69% are stressed and 54% feel unsupported.  At the same time, only 50% of mid-level leaders feel confident to lead and 37% don’t want to stay in management. No wonder 62% of CEOs don’t believe that their mid-level leaders are good enough. Although this research isn’t specific to agencies, with our propensity to over-service and give thinking away for free, I fear the situation in our space may be even worse.  So what’s going on here?

Failing future leaders

To be fair to the B-Suite, they’ve been dealt a pretty poor hand. Firstly, margin-poor agencies have tended to reward star performers with promotions over pay rises, so although talented, new leaders simply have fewer miles on the clock. Those same companies have also offered less training than was the norm in past decades. Then there’s the pandemic and remote work. Like new entrants to the industry, mid-level leaders have also been deprived of two years of osmotic learning - listening to their elders go about their business; gaining knowledge, checking their assumptions and, crucially, building confidence. Given how much we all took that learning for granted when we were wet behind the ears, it's almost impossible for us to assess the impact of its absence. And as if all that wasn't enough of a hurdle, the B-Suite now have to lead their teams through the unique constraints of hybrid working, with welcome but unprecedented societal change accelerating all around them. No wonder the most common issue they bring to our coaching and mentoring is Imposter Syndrome. One minute they’re one of the gang, next they’re in charge of their mates - who warily view them as the ‘chosen ones’ and stop inviting them to the pub. That’s no fun for anyone.

Beware the B-Suite timebomb

All this has created a perfect storm. On one side, there are agency leaders - you’re more stretched than ever, with demanding clients, myriad roles to fill and an urgent need to transform your business model. At the same time, your mid-level talent is a flight-risk and less ready to step-up; they’re exhausted, isolated and acutely aware of your lack of faith in them.  This creates a double-whammy for impeding progress. Not only are you being dragged away from strategic priorities, also your ability to cascade change is seriously diminished. The longer this gap is allowed to widen, the greater its negative impact on joy, wellbeing and commercial performance. In short, it’s a timebomb.  So what now? 

Help your rising stars to shine

The days of free pizza and a cab home in return for an all-nighter are long-gone - especially if people aren’t in the office.  For the best agencies, hackneyed phrases like ‘our people are our most important asset’ and ‘our team is our differentiator’ were never just lip service. But now more than ever, there needs to be an even stronger commitment to people strategy Within that, retaining and developing future leaders has clearly become an even higher priority. It’s also become a very different challenge, with crazy wage inflation set against the backdrop of a new generation’s motivations and expectations.  The reality is that talent is in charge. Of course that can be frustrating - demands for pay rises and ‘side-hustle time’ can make you want to pull your hair out - but this rebalancing of power is also an opportunity.  The better you attract, retain and develop the very best young talent in our fast-changing industry, the greater your opportunity for differentiation and competitive advantage.  Smart agencies are finding creative ways to do this. Co:definery’s own contribution is B-Suite Bootcamp - our group mentoring programme for new and future leaders. Together, our industry can diffuse this leadership timebomb and become an attractive, supportive career choice once again - liberating you from the day-to-day and powering healthy, sustainable growth.
Image: MAU
 

Are you the marketer the industry needs?

Are you the marketer the industry needs?

To create a more effective and sustainable agency marketplace, marketers must be the ones to accelerate change. (This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written for a Marketing...

To create a more effective and sustainable agency marketplace, marketers must be the ones to accelerate change. (This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written for a Marketing audience) We all know that agencies often give their thinking away in the hope of making money later. Sure, that’s not great business, but you’re the buyer, so meh But here’s a thing. As Mark Ritson recently wrote, marketers “often favour volume over value when it comes to pricing… they set prices too low because they look at the unit sales chart too much and ignore the profit chart on the next page”. Looks like agencies' skewed take on SKUs extends to marketers too. Awkward. Everyone’s falling into the trap of ‘knowing the price of everything, but the value of nothing’. As self-delusion goes, it’s like wearing a novelty hat and quaffing champagne, but failing to realise that you’re at a party.  In short, our industry has a messed-up definition of ‘value’ that serves no-one. So what’s to be done? 

Mismatched incentives

To illustrate just how out of whack we are around value, creative agency Initials’ Co-Founder Richard Barrett told me about a version of IT company Acer’s classic ’smile curve’: “Marketers' value perception of agency work is high at the outset, when strategy and concepts are developed, then dips in the middle for comms production and distribution, before increasing again for measurement and optimisation. Unfortunately, the agency revenue curve is the reverse - they make money in the middle but struggle to monetise strategy at the start or optimisation at the end.” This fundamental misalignment leaves agencies - figuratively and literally - with a sad face. But that shouldn’t leave you smiling. 

Beware dysfunctional agencies

The hard truth is that agencies lack the commercial nous found in other sectors - and this is bad news for you too.  Compared with other professional services companies, their level of commerciality is chalk and cheese. Agencies usually need to have been bought by a management consultancy before they’re exposed to the formalised, risk-savvy sales machine that they so sorely lack.  The reality is that while brands are professional buyers, agencies are amateur sellers. So often brow-beaten ‘yes’ men and women, many are even allergic to the word ‘sales’. No wonder management consultants are the more trusted advisors, taking home a far larger slice of the pie.  But even if you wanted to buy all your marketing services from Accenture or Deloitte, do your budgets run that deep? Thought not. You need agencies to raise their game. 

Telling agencies how to price 

Unfortunately, many agencies equate being commercially savvy with risk. Years of commoditisation have embedded a don’t-rock-the-boat mindset and a dangerously myopic perspective on the word ‘no’ I put that to Tracy Allery, Director, Marketing Procurement Business Partner at Nestlé and she didn’t pull her punches: "The better agencies aren’t shy about saying ‘this is what we do and this is what it costs’ - they’re not in the bargain basement space, so they're confident about the impact their work will deliver. When agencies don’t have a clear perspective on selling their work versus selling hours, then procurement, through a competitive review or other assessment, will tell them how to price.” Agencies will read that and rightly wince, but you should too. Allery is describing a seriously dysfunctional marketplace. 

Changing a broken market

Of course marketers want to buy low and agencies want to sell high. And ordinarily, that would lead to constructive compromise. But in such an unbalanced market, that’s not happening.  You have too much buying power and they have too little pricing power. So agency wins are pyrrhic and yours are self-defeating. No wonder ISBA and the IPA have launched their Pitch Positive Pledge to improve mental health, reduce advertiser wastage and produce more effective work.  Tom Lewis is a long-time agency finance director and former director of the IPA. He put the necessary change in stark terms: “As bespoke service providers, offering innovative, value-adding solutions to complex abstract problems, agencies need to shift from a high-efficiency, low-margin, long hours culture to one of high-effectiveness, high-margin and moderate-hours.” This current race to the bottom is bad news for your brand. Agencies are struggling to shift from a commoditised model to one that better meets your needs. So what can you do? 

A new commercial conversation 

The opportunity is to shift the client / agency dynamic from generic vendor-and-buyer to specialist expert-and-partner. This creates the space for both parties to better explore what mutual value means. For example, by moving from the traditional buying of time to a more collaborative solving of problems, both parties can embrace a case-by-case definition of value, adding much needed substance to hackneyed rhetoric about being ‘partners’.  Robin Skidmore is CEO of performance marketing agency Journey Further. We discussed how their value-based sales model tailors unique solutions to subjective client needs, not just traditional business metrics. That then helps enable performance-related pay.  “We go beyond simply saying ‘be a partner’ and proactively define what that looks like. So our remuneration is tied to the behaviours that will help both parties. Everyone’s mindset shifts from avoiding getting screwed, to scoping out a bespoke collaboration.”  This approach replaces risk with a mutual focus on win-win. It demonstrates why ‘value’ is so nuanced - and how a genuine partnership can combine pricing and process, alongside behaviour and culture. 

Time to be the grown-up

These peer-to-peer conversations about value are transformative all round. Most importantly, well-run, commercially savvy agencies make more money and they’re less of a shitshow to work for, so they can attract and retain the best talent to work on your business.  Broadening scoping and commercial conversations also creates a far richer base from which to optimise your relationships and reduce the likelihood of a costly repitch - and starting the same dysfunctional dance with a new so-called partner. But here’s the kicker - most agencies flounder between efficiency and innovation. They’re too unfocused to make good money and too margin-and-time-poor to meaningfully invest in innovation. So you’re going to have to be the grown-up.  Offer more face-time in pitches, more encouragement for innovation and more flexibility around different commercial models.  Be a willing audience for the progressive few and encourage the rest to step-up and meet you at a more collaborative place.  Be the client that smart agencies aspire to work with - a talent magnet not just because of your brand and budget, but for your ethos too.  Be the client that your business and the wider industry needs. 
Image: SIphotography

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