business tips

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 close to a hundred...

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 close to a hundred 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: Help your future leaders step-up

B-Suite Bootcamp: Help your future leaders step-up

A fast-paced group mentoring programme to help you retain and develop your rising stars.  Given the battle for talent in this supercharged hybrid world, it's never been more important to...

A fast-paced group mentoring programme to help you retain and develop your rising stars.  Given the battle for talent in this supercharged hybrid world, it's never been more important to retain and develop your rising stars.  By successfully stepping-up to lead their teams, your so-called ‘B-Suite’ can liberate you from the day-to-day and actively help improve agency performance. But whether you're planning for succession or just developing your next generation, today's future leaders need a different kind of support As well as being burdened by the unique constraints of hybrid working, they’re also often less experienced than previous generations, with different motivations and expectations. So your approach to their development really matters.  That’s where Co:definery’s B-Suite Bootcamp can help. 

What is B-Suite Bootcamp? 

B-Suite Bootcamp is our Group Mentoring programme for future leaders and new managers. It’s designed to help them feel more confident and capable in their roles.  For six weeks, they become part of an inspiring group with a common cause - to explore and solve their shared challenges.  Each week, we co-create a new step in participants’ personalised 'Game Plan' - from setting goals and changing mindsets, to building habits and overcoming hurdles. 

What they’ll get

B-Suite Bootcamp offers your brightest people a range of benefits. 
  • Six energising 90 minute workshops, tailored to their real-world priorities 
  • Personalised Game Plan for success, including relevant tools and techniques
  • Access to the B-Suite Bootcamp WhatsApp community and mentoring app 
  • Content tips for deeper learning. 
They finish the Bootcamp with everything they need to thrive - a refreshed mindset, practical tools and a supportive new network of peers. To find out more, including when the next cohort is due to start, get in touch.
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 more 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

Transforming team performance

Transforming team performance

By combining collaborative workshops and personal coaching, leaders can address hidden team dysfunctions and unlock agency potential. Most leaders have felt frustrated by a hardworking team of...

By combining collaborative workshops and personal coaching, leaders can address hidden team dysfunctions and unlock agency potential. team coaching Most leaders have felt frustrated by a hardworking team of talented people that aren't quite working together as well as they could. Perhaps it's the senior members of a specific department. It could be the anointed few that you're hoping will step-up and free you from the day-to-day grind. Or maybe you’re thinking about you and your Board.  Whether a group is newly formed or decades old, there's a world of complexity in the dynamics between people - from woolly goals and unclear roles, to clashing personalities or a lack of process.  How could you help them achieve their collective potential? Would an additional hire unlock progress? Perhaps some training? Or is one person acting as a blocker? So maybe you should crack the whip a little? Failing that, paintball or a piss-up might help. Or perhaps not. 

Beware the comfort zone 

To refine your options, it’s worth considering what’s in play and what’s at stake - not least how well-meaning habits can stifle momentum and create additional risk. Of course, habits aren’t inherently good or bad, but most of us are prone to spending too much time in our comfort zone. And as long as we do our jobs well, we’re usually left alone to get on with it.   But over time, as individual habits are left unchallenged within teams, the cracks begin to show - from unspoken inefficiencies, through to more damaging, often subconscious attitudes, like ‘not invented here’ or ‘looking after number one’.  These issues are magnified in times of change. From a renewed vision or a revenue dip, to an acquisition or even just a new starter, as the context shifts, the pressure rises. That’s when disconnects are amplified, nervous people become less flexible and disharmony becomes a ticking time bomb.  Clearly, proactivity counts, so how can you get ahead of these risks? 

Co-creating collective growth

One powerful option is Team Coaching. This combines individual coaching with highly collaborative group workshops.  Coaching removes blockers and unlocks potential. Unlike training or mentoring, it’s based on guided reflection and self-realisation, so every breakthrough builds confidence and self-efficacy that can be applied again and again.  Similarly, carefully designed, interactive workshops unlock lateral thinking, greater energy, and new collaborative dynamics.  And when these disciplines are combined, you achieve the compound effect of co-creation and collective growth.  A programme of Team Coaching typically works in three stages: 
  1. We begin with a carefully facilitated goal-setting workshop that sets a shared agenda for change. 
  2. With clarity on where they're collectively headed, each team member then has a short burst of individual coaching to unpack their personal journey towards those shared goals.
  3. Finally the team reconvenes for an alignment workshop to refine their shared goals and agree how to advance together.
The entire process creates a new collective awareness - and awareness enables progress. 

The power of the collective

Team Coaching works by defining - and then enabling - a tangible shift from ‘where am I going’ to ‘where are we going’.  During the individual coaching sessions, everyone unpacks their role in achieving the shared goals. Not just how they do their bit, but also how they can support each other.  Informed by the greater good, comfort zones are gently challenged and better solutions uncovered. For example, do you need to be in every pitch meeting? Where might your skills be better deployed? How might that enable others to step up?  Your coach creates a safe space where everyone is keen to explore. And while he or she is completely impartial, their vantage point on the whole jigsaw helps each participant to recognise how the pieces fit together.  To enable that bigger picture thinking, a key principle of Team Coaching is that nothing stays secret. What’s said one-to-one to your coach is deemed to have been said to the whole group. This sensitive building of collective perspective creates a truly open conversation, which in turn unlocks further progress.  Ultimately, everyone can see the team’s blockers and blindspots. This enables everyone to co-create a better solution. Hierarchies are flattened, obstacles are revealed and trust is built. 

Unlocking high performance

The combination of individual and collective clarity is what makes Team Coaching transformational. A shared group intention is more potent than the sum of the participants’ individual wills. And by promoting perspective, self-solving and higher collective accountability, the process creates lasting value.  Exploring the individual and the interpersonal, as well as your company and its culture, the team co-creates a tailored blueprint that they can’t wait to act on. They also become a bonded and willing cohort of advocates for the impact that they’ve experienced.  So from the top down, whether or not your teams are already happy, innovative, and thriving, what additional potential could Team Coaching unlock?
Image: Pacal Swier

Kick-starting healthy agency growth

Kick-starting healthy agency growth

To be accountable for accelerating the right kind of growth for your agency, it’s essential to set your destination, route and milestones. If, like me, you’ve reached a certain age, then...

To be accountable for accelerating the right kind of growth for your agency, it’s essential to set your destination, route and milestones. If, like me, you’ve reached a certain age, then you’ll know it gets harder to avoid accumulating pounds (or kilos, if that’s your thing). And while I’m all for a doughy middle in a croissant, it’s not ideal on a middle-aged consultant. So I’ve started myself a bit of a health kick. And it turns out to be the perfect analogy for kick-starting healthy agency growth.

Running to stand still 

My first priority was to stop. Stop talking about it, stop procrastinating and stop allowing the urgency of the day-job to crowd-out the importance of health.  This is the elephant in the room for agency growth too. Many leaders feel like they’re endlessly fighting fires. Often time-pressured and defaulting to reactive decisions, they are - as has become a cliché - stuck working in the business, rather than on it. This is particularly prevalent for established independents - talented enough to achieve some success, but never quite focused enough to reach their potential.  Just like me and my waistline, without pausing for thought and seriously prioritising change, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. 

Where are you headed?

With space to think, you can properly consider where you’re headed. For me, clearly ‘get less chubby’ wasn’t the world’s SMARTest goal. It lacked specificity, measurability and any sense of timebounded-ness. And so it is with agency visions. Whether you run the show alone, share equity with partners or report into a wider group, it’s all too easy to never really think about loosely defined concepts like ‘vision’. Even pinning that down to mean some kind of business destination doesn’t guarantee it receives the airtime it needs. Thankfully, leaders are increasingly recognising that growth for growth's sake is rarely sustainable - or fun, for that matter. Traditional high-level objectives like 'doubling in size' or being the 'best in the world' are being replaced by richer goals, like liberation from the day-to-day, creating a more diverse workplace or - my favourite recent one - only working with clients that you'd happily go for a beer with. Of course there’s nothing wrong with scaling revenue, headcount and geographical spread - if that’s what you and your stakeholders deliberately choose.  Similarly, if you have an exit in mind, then pursuing growth must be balanced with appealing to your most likely acquirers - from headroom on profits and low client concentration, to strong management information and the development of meaningful intellectual property. Whatever your preferred destination, finding clarity in the complexity is essential. Vision matters. 

What’s your commercial reality? 

This is where practicality comes into play - the ‘A’ for ‘attainable’ in a SMART goal. With the best will in the world, there’s little point me committing to a sub-six second 100 metres as a forty-something, non-running, non-cheetah.  As you consider your agency vision, it’s tempting to disconnect the ‘what’ with the ‘how’ - especially if you’re aiming high. Having an audacious goal is fine, but it still needs to be grounded in reality. You might yearn to be the first agency on Mars, but unless your side-hustle is rocket science, your odds are pretty slim.  This disconnect is often found in the numbers. That may sound trite, but agencies are usually run by ideas people rather than accountants - which is fine, but it can create a commercial blind spot. For example, have you pored over your last three years' accounts to gain every last insight? Have you turned business forecasting into a dynamic, future-facing representation of what's possible - as well as what’s likely? Have you explored the impact of different pricing models?  From right-sizing your rainy day fund to prioritising profit drivers, this kind of commercial interrogation enables you to refine vision options - and choose between them; making informed decisions about the trade-offs required, not least around risk versus reward.  In short, vision and viability must go hand in hand. 

Being accountable for progress 

So far so good, but we haven’t actually changed anything yet. In fitness terms, all I’ve done is ponder my goals (probably on the sofa while chomping on Jelly Babies). And in an agency context, you’ve convened your stakeholders and agreed an achievable destination - positive steps, but no action as yet. This is where we all have to be accountable for change. After all, performance isn’t about achieving an outcome - it’s about doing the things we need to do, in order to get the outcome we want.  For me, that’s been about a personal trainer, a calorie tracking app and a set of scales that measures everything from body fat, protein and water content, to muscle mass, body age and how much I actually weigh (no idea how it does all that - my money’s on witchcraft).  This is why that commercial interrogation is so important. With decisions taken and priorities set, knowing your KPIs is essential. These are the aligned, healthy boundaries that enable you and your senior leadership team to gauge progress, celebrate milestones and stay the course. 

Start your journey well 

With client demands, personal aspirations and woolly business goals competing for headspace, running an agency can be pretty full-on. No wonder it’s all too common to lack the energy and bandwidth to think hard about the future. And regardless of whether your aspirations are fuzzy or finely drawn, being shackled to reactivity and gut feel will only take you so far.  Ultimately, ambition must relate to achievability. From strategic priorities like differentiation and commercial models, down to daily dilemmas like when to hire and what your financial KPIs are telling you, making robust decisions is essential.  This is where Co:definery’s Commercial Review can help. It’s a short, sharp assessment that aligns your financial reality with your future goals - all built on a deep understanding of agency growth.  Across two workshops tailored to your specific aspirations and constraints, we help you and your senior team decide your vision, identify your strategic priorities and set the right KPIs to navigate the glass ceilings and pitfalls you’ll encounter as you progress. By connecting where you’re at and where you’re headed, you create the necessary clarity and confidence to accelerate towards your personal definition of success.  So if kick-starting a healthier future sounds good, then get in touch to find out more - but please don’t expect croissants in the workshops.
Image: Chan2545

The hidden solution to the talent battle

The hidden solution to the talent battle

Agency CEOs and Founders often feel that challenges around business talent are insurmountable, but redefining Employee Experience puts you back in control.  It’s hard to avoid the pressure...

Agency CEOs and Founders often feel that challenges around business talent are insurmountable, but redefining Employee Experience puts you back in control.  business talent It’s hard to avoid the pressure in the talent market right now. Alongside the very real challenges of finding great people, wage inflation and bringing more diverse talent into the industry, there’s also an ever-present threatening hype, from the so-called ‘talent war’ to the ‘great resignation’.  Many agency leaders are in a permanent state of tension. This all feels beyond their control. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Once you define the challenge more clearly, a big part of the solution is found hiding in plain sight. 

From hype to clarity 

Relieving all this pressure starts with creating some clarity. Much like the language of agency strategy (mission, purpose, vision, values etc), when it comes to business talent, we’re routinely confused by a surplus of woolly, overlapping terms. And this exhausting list is far from exhaustive: 
  • Culture
  • People strategy
  • Talent strategy
  • Employer brand 
  • Employee engagement
  • Employee value proposition
  • Employee experience 
  • Employee journey
In fairness, many of these terms have their place, but the overlap seriously hinders progress - not just when you’re setting your direction, but also when you’re executing your plans. Every single person in your business will have a slightly different understanding.  The simple truth is that - especially in a service industry - People Strategy is a fundamental part of your business strategy. But what does it actually mean?  People Strategy is a set of priorities for how you’ll attract, retain and grow talent, in order to achieve your overall goals. It’s brought to life through your Employee Experience - that’s every touchpoint from before your people join until after they leave.  In short, Employee Experience is the execution of your People Strategy. Each is essential to the other.

The hidden solution 

Turning to the talent problem, the reality is that most agencies focus too much on hiring. They spend very little time and energy on attracting their ideal talent and also not nearly enough on keeping great people once they’ve joined. Hence the expensive vicious cycle of finally securing great people, only for them to leave prematurely.  Be honest and ask yourself:
  • Is your agency’s hiring often a reactive rush to fill a gap? 
  • Are the right behaviours truly embedded into your culture? 
  • Are you really doing enough to support, develop and nurture your key talent and future leaders? 
This is why having a clear, fit-for-purpose People Strategy is so critical. It means you can improve your end-to-end Employee Experience, which in turn has two major benefits.  Firstly, it frees you up to focus on what’s in your control, rather than what’s not. For example, while wage inflation may feel like an unavoidable external pressure, having a more textured view on your people helps you uncover more creative ways to secure and motivate them. This deeper understanding also enables you to tailor your employees’ experience - from before they join, throughout their time with you, until after they leave. Improvements here can be transformational - especially when your overarching strategy offers meaningful differentiation to build in. It all helps you win hearts as well as minds. 

Define what good looks like 

Whether or not your People Strategy feels in good shape, the immediate priority is to define what’s working well, where improvements will have the most impact, and which blindspots are holding you back.  Co:definery offers a customisable diagnostic workshop to help you define the fastest route forward. The core process is as follows:
  1. Goals: where you’re headed, strategic priorities
  2. State of play: untangling language, where are you now, key players, known constraints
  3. Progress: urgent changes, how to go from good to great, differentiating your Employee Experience
  4. Scale: appropriate tools, techniques, and stakeholder engagement
  5. Actions: priorities, owners and deadlines. 
For some agencies, this diagnostic is a swift validation or course correction, giving them the clarity they need to make the right changes. Others uncover broader requirements, so the process shapes the further guidance they need - around People Strategy, Employee Experience, overarching agency strategy or a combination of all three. 

Winning the moments that matter

Many agency leaders feel helpless when it comes to the talent market. But far from being an unwinnable ‘war’, securing the best people is in fact a series of very winnable moments.  These moments are defined by having a clearer People Strategy, expressed through a more bespoke and compelling Employee Experience - especially if each step reflects a powerfully differentiated brand. Rethinking talent in this way can be a major catalyst for success - impacting everything from standout, growth and profit, to reducing staff turnover, increasing productivity and building the right reputation.  So wherever you’re starting from, is improving your People Strategy a high enough priority for you and your leadership team?
Image: Gustavo Sánchez

How coaching creates headspace and certainty

How coaching creates headspace and certainty

Coaching gives you clarity, confidence, and momentum towards life-changing goals. And often the biggest hurdle is imagining that you don’t have time.  It's a busy old world, isn't it? We...

Coaching gives you clarity, confidence, and momentum towards life-changing goals. And often the biggest hurdle is imagining that you don’t have time.  coaching It's a busy old world, isn't it? We all wrestle with ‘urgent vs. important’ to one degree or another. Certainly scheduling 'thinking time' has been one of the most powerful - and simplest - adjustments I've ever made to my working week. Of course, scheduling that time and sticking to it are very different things. There's a tonne of psychology at play here - not least the urge to tick the easy things off your list first.  Liberation from the pressure of the 'urgent' is a great example of where coaching can help. We know what we want but just can’t seem to make it happen.  Other scenarios offer even less clarity - like what to do, never mind where to start.  Ultimately coaching gets you unstuck; taking your brain from scattered to gathered. It’s defining a change, then finding clarity on the steps to get there, as well as addressing what’s getting in the way.

What is coaching?

A coach partners with you in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires you to maximise your personal and professional potential. That same approach can be applied to groups and teams too. In effect, choosing to be coached is a commitment to yourself; taking charge and building new conviction in your decision making. And when you do that, you and everyone around you will benefit.

Discover where to start

To start being coached, all you need is an open mind. It's great if you know the change you want to make, but many people begin without that clarity. Common themes include:
  • Setting direction
  • Creating momentum 
  • Getting out of the weeds
  • Building confidence and certainty 
  • Upgrading skills (e.g. leadership, time management, communication)
  • Building healthy habits (e.g. exercise, diet)
  • Finding work / life balance
  • Making a life or career transition 
Of course, these are just examples. You can choose to be coached on anything. 

What to expect

Coaching works in the space between the everyday and the existential, often within the same session. It's a safe and confidential space to explore and be heard without judgement. Where a mentor will share knowledge, the coach's role is simply to hold the space, ask questions and listen. All you need to do is show up.  Together we’ll explore who you want to be, how you want to feel, and what that could mean for those closest to you.  You'll be supported to connect dots, reach decisions and design practical actions that give you certainty about the best way forward.

How it works

Step one is an informal Discovery call. In 45 minutes or so, we'll explore where you are and where you might like to get to. This uncovers your priorities and which objectives to unpack. If it feels right, we'll agree to work together. Coaching engagements are blocks of six sessions, each an hour long and usually a fortnight apart. During those sessions, we'll work through your priorities (and others as they emerge), agreeing on clear, achievable goals, as well as specific actions to take. For some people, six sessions are all they need. Others continue over time, refreshing their challenges and maintaining the regular commitment to self-reflection and action setting.

Getting started

Coaching is an investment in you. It bridges the gap between what you want and actually making it happen. The process can reveal a whole new path or simply unlock what feels just out of reach. It’s an opportunity - but one that only you can give yourself. So whether your priorities are clear or not, if you'd like to take charge of your progress and maximise your potential, then get in touch to arrange a Discovery call.  And if you can’t free-up 45 minutes to focus on what matters, then ask yourself how much time is ebbing away in the absence of clarity? 
Image: Ashley Batz

Building your momentum

Building your momentum

When you're looking to accelerate change, it's crucial to focus your efforts where it counts - so choose your priorities carefully to build business momentum. Once your strategy is as crisp as it...

When you're looking to accelerate change, it's crucial to focus your efforts where it counts - so choose your priorities carefully to build business momentum.
build business momentum

Once your strategy is as crisp as it needs to be, it's time to embrace change throughout your business.

Why? Because by consistently expressing your expertise and differentiation, you're powerfully demonstrating clarity to all your stakeholders - from clients, prospects and investors, to press, partners, staff, and the wider talent market. By considering every touchpoint as a proof of your value proposition, you're creating the focus you need for efficient, sustainable growth.

Think holistically

The key watch-out here is to not equate 'touchpoint' just with visible assets. Of course, your everyday marketing tools will need updating, like your website, decks, and lead generation assets. So too more granular representations of your brand, right down to your team's LinkedIn profiles, email signatures, and even comp slips (ask your Nan). But marketing is just one facet of your agency's customer experience. It also includes how you sell and price, your people strategy, your finances and operating model, and in particular, your culture and leadership style. In all these areas, have your structures, processes, and decision-making been tailored to reflect and substantiate the differentiation you've chosen? Taking sales as an example, has your thinking evolved on who you sell to and how you sell - not to mention who you walk away from, as well as why and when? So, which of these building blocks should you focus on? As ever, it depends. There are two routes to consider - reviewing the whole or fixing the obvious.

Setting agency-wide priorities

To get your leadership team aligned on what changes to make and in what order, consider Co:definery's Agency Transformation Roadmap (ATXR) process - a fast-paced assessment of strengths, weaknesses, and gaps across the following pillars:
  • Strategy
  • Leadership
  • People & Culture
  • Craft & Creativity
  • Commercial
  • Marketing
  • Sales
The Agency Transformation Roadmap process delivers a co-created action plan through the collaborative identification and filtering of priorities. Your whole senior team is bought into exactly where to start, who's doing what, and how long things will take.

Addressing urgent issues

In other situations, you may already know where to focus. If you're certain that you'll create an immediate impact by addressing one or more known issues, then we can design a specific consulting sprint to get it sorted. These often include the following: Whether you're clear on where to start or yet to set your focus, for more information on accelerating change, do get in touch.
Image: No-w-ay and H. Caps

How rethinking ‘value’ can improve effectiveness

How rethinking ‘value’ can improve effectiveness

There’s growing momentum around a refocus on outcomes over agency inputs, but by defining ‘value’ too narrowly, marketers risk missing the opportunity. (This article first appeared in...

There’s growing momentum around a refocus on outcomes over agency inputs, but by defining ‘value’ too narrowly, marketers risk missing the opportunity. rethinking value for agencies (This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written for a Marketing audience) On my first day of secondary school, Mr Myers, our fearsome deputy head, asked the class, “What is art?” Being a bit of a prick, I asked: “Isn’t anything done well an art?” He glared at me with sunken eyes – remember Cyril Sneer? – and asked for an example. Being a lot of a prick, I said “ski jumping”. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t end well. But prickishness aside, it does show that you can’t define art without subjectivity. Your agency relationships are the same – and the endless quest to benchmark value is just as fruitless.

Calling time on buying time

Marketing is riddled with subjectivity. From insights and creativity to concepts and logos, value is in the eye of the beholder. Like a house or a classic car, an idea – on a fag packet or buried in a 60-slide deck – is only worth what you’re willing to pay. And the time spent creating it has no bearing on value. Despite that, we’ve been mired in time-based contracts since God was a toddler. So caps doffed to the WFA and IPA for pushing to change the conversation on agency pricing. There’s never been more impetus to refocus from inputs to this crazy little thing called ‘value’. So what’s holding us back?

The performance misconception

Hurdle number one is the maddeningly widely held view that ‘value’ means connecting price to performance. From CMOs and agency CEOs to new-business directors and intermediaries, if I had a quid for every time I heard this, I’d have an even more debilitating trainer habit. As an alternative to cost-plus pricing, value-based pricing simply means agreeing a number based on perceived value. Whether that price varies based on hitting certain metrics is a separate – often complementary – question. This isn’t some arcane nuance. When healthy conversations about value immediately segue into payment-by-results, they tend to end quickly. You’re rarely wild about budget uncertainty and agencies are wary of hazy attribution. Before you know it, a progressive road closes and you’re back to buying time.

Reframing value

Another harmful convention is that ‘value’ means ‘outcome’, which in turn describes an objective, like an uplift in cost-per-acquisition, sales or NPS. These are fine as goals, but when did we decide that ‘value’ can only be an end result? That’s as narrow as a sprinter defining performance solely by race times, rather than focusing on her start, acceleration and dip for the line. Agencies offer all sorts of value. Access to certain talent? One concept or three? Unlimited amends? Insights only or recommendations too? Working prototypes? Experience? Credibility? Speed? Money-back guarantee? It all depends on what you need. Quality of output is also an outcome, like a positive campaign pre-test, getting sign-off from your board or winning a career-building award. And so it goes on – value is personal to all of us. Tate Modern or Tate Britain? Much Ado or Macbeth? Ant or Dec? None of the above? Not a problem.

The value of value

Within the broad church of value, faith is a personal choice. Price and expectation offer no guarantee, so ultimately we invest based on hope. A ticket to see a living legend will cost the Earth and you might be disappointed (I’m looking at you, Bob Dylan). Other times, you pay less and the music blows you away (Steve Mason, I love you). That’s just how buying stuff works. It’s not about why things cost what they cost, it’s whether you feel you got value for money. The operative – and subjective – word is ‘feel’. And so it is with agency value. You need their talent and motivation – neither of which can be standardised in a ratecard or by benchmarking deliverables. You just can’t make subjectivity accountable. That’s why the pursuit of time as a proxy for value is futile. Not only is the reassurance an illusion, but the commoditisation it fuels is a far greater problem for marketers. Poring over agency overheads isn’t ‘transparency’, it’s a threadbare comfort blanket – made of asbestos.

Embracing subjective value

From holidays and hairdos to gigs and galleries, there’s no antidote to subjectivity. Who cares what a snazzy restaurant pays for ingredients, just enjoy the meal. Sure, decide what you fancy and read the reviews, but informed judgement can’t replace risk. If the food’s good, keep visiting. And if not, then try somewhere new. The same applies to your agencies. Accepting risk isn’t recklessness, it’s reality. Of course you should shop around to find the right expertise at a price you can afford. But what if you just pay them what you agree they’re worth, then fire them if it doesn’t work out? That’s effectively what happens anyway, so just bin all the faff that makes failure more likely. By co-creating a partnership based on subjective value – from outcomes to intangibles – you’ll reach a more tailored scope, set clearer expectations and get the agency’s top talent chomping at the bit to move mountains for you. You can also agree a pricing model that suits both parties’ attitude to risk. As well as breaking the lazy hegemony of time-based pricing, this alignment of incentives and commercials also recognises that a business outcome is far from the only value to be had. Once you stop stressing the cost of the canvas, you’re free to embrace the quality of the art – in all its subjective glory.
Image: cacaroot

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