finding business talent

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

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:
  • Value-based selling - e.g. how to leverage scarcity to improve conversion, command a premium, shorten your sales cycle
  • Evolving your leadership model - e.g. accelerate growth by tailoring how you lead
  • Reshaping marketing and lead generation - e.g. who to target, how, what's the right resourcing model?
  • People strategy - e.g. address the challenging talent market with a truly differentiating end-to-end Employee Experience
  • Commercial review – e.g. are you leaving money on the table and what’s the right commercial opportunity?
  • Begin your M&A journey - e.g. as M&A options evolve, choose the best approach to sell, acquire or seek investment.
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

We need to talk about saying ‘no’

We need to talk about saying ‘no’

Agencies mistakenly believe that they say no often enough, in the right ways, and for the right reasons. But they only see the tip of the iceberg - and that hurts them, their clients, and the...

Agencies mistakenly believe that they say no often enough, in the right ways, and for the right reasons. But they only see the tip of the iceberg - and that hurts them, their clients, and the industry.  agency tips (This article was written for The Goods – the global business development magazine)  A mate of mine runs a well-known ad agency. She’s currently neck-deep in a nightmare pitch. It’s a big prize, but there are repeat briefings, ever more panicked deadlines and no agencies have been culled after each round. It’s your classic hospital pass.  So should she keep going - after all, they’ve come this far - or should she pull out and say enough is enough; the wellbeing of her team and the quality of the outcome are not being well-served? For what it’s worth, I suggested she do the latter but go further - offer the client a choice: explain why their process is doomed, then say either you’ll bail now or they start working solely with you, paying a representative fee only if, at the end of a short discovery phase, they choose to continue with your agency.  If they don’t like where you get to - or you see their dysfunction is terminal - then you part as friends. They’ve spent nothing and can continue with their pitch. And you’ve only lost a fraction of what you would’ve spent on their fruitless beauty parade.  Whether or not you agree, this kind of late-stage ‘no’ does beg the question - when, how, and why should you say no to clients? 

Qualification is only the start 

Let’s start with the obvious - what’s your ‘easy’ no? At the very least, many agencies steer clear of problematic sectors. Arms manufacturer? Nope. Tobacco? Pass. Tinpot despot of a fascist regime? Not on your nelly, mate.  Most of you will also push back on brief, budget and process - too vague, too competitive, too arms length etc. Quite right too. Maybe you use the traditional 'fame, fortune, fun' model to qualify opportunities. In fairness, this allows you to make the case for pretty much anything ('...but I’ve never seen inside a cigar factory!'), but heigh ho - it's better than nothing. Better still, perhaps you use a bespoke scorecard that reflects your unique, client-centric value proposition. If so, congratulations; this is basic good practice - albeit not as prevalent as you might expect. Weirdly, all this no-tastic practice usually only happens when a brief arrives - and usually only when it lands on your doorstep, via inbound or an intermediary. You should apply the same rigour to homegrown opportunities too. Either way, of course qualification is super important. But it's only the tip of the 'no' iceberg. 

Beyond yes or no 

Remember Sheila and Barry from way back when? Turns out they’re getting married. But one look at the invite tells you the wedding’s a committee-thunk horror show waiting to happen. In trying to please everyone, they'll end up pleasing no-one - including themselves.  You could swerve the whole debacle and just say no. After all, you don’t know them super well. Or you could say yes, drink through it and hope for the best.  But what if you share your concerns with Sheila and Barry? You've endured some iffy weddings and don’t mind offering some pointers.  Their loved-up little eyes well-up as your wisdom lands; life-long regrets fading from their future. They even implore you to play an active role in shaping the day. One minute you were making up the numbers, now you’re being recast as a wedding planner. Older and wiser, naturally you do the decent thing and agree. After all, an awesome wedding is a win for everyone. 

Welcoming your influence

The big day arrives and now you’re seated at the top table, rather than by the toilets (as I say, you knew them from way back when). But your work is far from done.  Both Baz and Sheils have learnt to trust your guidance. Table six looks glum, go tell a joke! No-one’s dancing, go bust some moves! Uncle Dave’s parched, grab some Buck’s Fizz! (The drink, not the band.) At the happy couple’s behest, your fingerprints are all over the show. The DJ’s playing Spencer Davis, mushrooms are off the menu and that berk you don’t like has inherited your seat by the toilets.  By deftly rejecting a one-off decision at the outset, your knowhow has made you indispensable. 

Leveraging jeopardy

Clearly this laboured metaphor is about nurturing jeopardy. If clients only vaguely want the pleasure of your company, then that's too low a threshold to attend - especially when their invite is far from promising.  But if they truly need your expertise - and are prepared to listen - then that's not just a yes, it's a 'hell, yeah'. The gentle threat of your departure hangs heavy in the client’s mind; a nagging nervousness that your new-business spidey senses are trained to spot. Like a friendly wind in your sails, that feeling is what differentiation enables - when you know how to leverage it.  

Give honest advice

Back to Sheila and Barry. Relaxed and glowing, they return from their honeymoon (they planned for Luton, you suggested the Maldives). Ready to start their new life - house, kids, maybe even a cat - they turn to you once more.  Rather than a fading face in a dusty wedding album, you're now a trusted confidant. You earned this fulfilling role by being honest and offering good advice that they might not have been ready to hear.  Even if they’d told you to sling it, you’d have sidestepped a grim wedding and the cost of a gift (score!). But instead, your instinct, expertise, and desire for them to be happy has paid off for all concerned.  And it doesn’t end there. Once a client says ‘yes’, there’s plenty more for you to say ‘no’ to.

Establish healthy relationships 

If existing clients treat you badly - all pulled ranks, bad manners, and need-it-by-Mondays - then ask yourself when they learned that this was acceptable? Agencies love the 'buy now, pay later' logic of winning new clients and making money later. This 'land and expand' model is deeply flawed. For one, with in-housing, there's less work to be done - and money to recoup - on an ongoing basis. But more to the point, brown-nosing your way through a poorly-run pitch is not the path to partnership. Servility at the start ensures servility throughout, making account growth twice as hard and half as fun.  That’s why speaking truth to power is such an important boundary to set. And there’s also no better way of demonstrating conviction and establishing trust in a pitch process. After all, 'because you wanted it most' is not the post-win feedback you want. Instead aim for 'you weren't the cheapest, but...'.

Just do the right thing

So what happened to my mate and her nightmare pitch? I'd love to tell you that she played the 'no' card as described; that the client loved her honesty and they all headed off into the sunset, like Sheila and Barry. Truth is, time will tell. But in all honesty, it doesn't matter. The point is that these decisions are always personal. A good outcome is only defined by you.  Say no graciously, early and often - for the right reasons - then you always win. You protect morale, show leadership and dodge a bullet. Winning a bad client costs more than missing out on a good one.  Even if expecting ‘I do’ means they take your ‘I don’t’ badly, don’t be surprised to find them circling back once they realise you were right. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow - but saying 'no' is often the first step to hearing 'yes'. Ultimately, all agencies want smart, collaborative, open-minded clients - can you think of a better way to unearth one?
Image: Sam Hepburn

Size matters: what clients really want from indies and networks

Size matters: what clients really want from indies and networks

While there’s some truth to indies thriving at the expense of network shops, Co:definery's research shows that in fact it’s between agency disciplines where marketers see the greatest difference...

While there’s some truth to indies thriving at the expense of network shops, Co:definery's research shows that in fact it’s between agency disciplines where marketers see the greatest difference in value. what clients really want Given many clients' pandemic-powered need to pivot, agencies of all shapes and sizes have been forced to work faster and more flexibly than ever to understand what clients really want.  In that context, it’s no surprise that many independents are claiming ‘agility’ as their USP, while decrying the networks as slow, bloated, or even dying. It certainly makes sense that they might often be more naturally nimble than their larger cousins, so it’s become an easy narrative to sustain.  Indeed, while indies have picked up various high-profile clients in recent times, the network shops - or rather the holding companies - are forced to air their understandably downbeat numbers in public. So it’s tempting to imagine that the headwinds faced by all agencies are mainly slowing the larger players.  But how real is that? To find out, Co:definery teamed up with creative leadership specialists Curve and research agency BAMM to explore marketers' attitudes towards their agencies - in particular their views networks and independents.  The findings tell a far more nuanced story. 

The impact of ownership

Our research started by asking clients whether network vs indie was even a factor in who they worked with. That was a resounding ‘yes’. Only 16% said it didn’t matter - less than half the 33% who said the distinction was critical.  Interestingly, only 22% of clients who actually use indies said ownership status was important, whereas 56% of those using network agencies said it matters a lot. Similarly, the higher the client’s budget, the more that ownership matters.  All this stands to reason - higher spending clients often need scale and geographical breadth, which of course are tangible points of difference for network agencies (the clue’s in the name).  So in short, size does matter - no sniggering at the back - and indies vs networks is definitely a thing. 

Changing client perceptions

Having established that ownership counts, we asked how clients had changed their perceptions about networks and indies in the 2-3 years prior to Covid-19. Perhaps surprisingly, this is good news for holding companies - 28% of clients said network agencies had become more attractive, whereas only 18% said the same of indies.  This contrast is even greater for clients with higher budgets, who are far more likely to be using network agencies. Not only did 54% of those marketers say that networks had become more attractive, but 62% said indies had become less so. So rather than signalling a stampede from networks to indies, in fact the greater growth in positivity flowed the other way. 

What marketers really want

To understand this shift in attitudes, we asked clients what they want from indies and network agencies. By some distance, the most important quality for network agencies is ‘breadth of service’, with 33% of clients citing this as their key factor. For existing users of network agencies, this increases to 40%.  Interestingly, for clients also using indies, while breadth remains networks’ most important quality, at 30%, ‘access to top talent’ is the joint-top answer. Perhaps those clients have grown used to having founders on their account?  Turning to indies, as we might expect, clients see their most popular quality as ‘speed, flexibility, and agility’, as chosen by 31% of marketers. Perhaps tellingly, this increases to 36% amongst clients also using network agencies.  Here a subtlety arose amongst clients of indies - at 35%, ‘track record in my industry’ was cited as an even greater factor in indies’ appeal than ‘speed, flexibility, and agility’.  Might sector experience be more of a given amongst larger network shops? Or could indies be working on more innovative projects, with clients particularly seeking provenance from within their own market?  This importance of ‘breadth’ to networks and ‘agility’ to indies is where our research most supports the prevailing narrative. But how has the pandemic impacted these evolving preferences? 

The Covid-19 factor 

Having faced so much disruption in the last year, we asked marketers how their perceptions of networks and indies had changed since March 2020. Starting with the independents, overall 47% of clients reported no perception change. For those already using indies, ‘no change’ remains the most popular answer. But for those marketers also using networks, 48% said that indies have become more attractive. So not good news for networks.  When we asked about perceptions of network agencies since Covid-19, ‘no change’ is again the dominant response, regardless of whether clients were already using networks or indies. That said, 26% of the latter also said that networks are now less attractive.  So the pandemic has driven a greater preference for indies, albeit as a measured shift rather than a fundamental market realignment. But what’s driven this change? 

Enabling brands to pivot

Having previously explored the most attractive agency qualities prior to Covid-19, we also asked clients which had become more important since the pandemic began. Alongside ‘quality (i.e. of people, thinking and work)’ and ‘track record in my industry’, clients of both agency types told us that ‘speed, flexibility and agility’ has become their priority.  So while network agencies’ pre-Covid trump card of ‘breadth of service’ has dropped right down the client wish-list, the independents’ prized asset of ‘speed, flexibility and agility’ has jumped to the top.  Looking at the highest spending clients reveals another interesting finding. For these marketers, there’s also a pronounced increase in the importance placed on ‘access to top talent’.  So the message is clear - with clients urgently needing to pivot, they want to work with the best people who can also bring relevant experience. 

What frustrates clients about agencies

As well as positive criteria, we also wanted to understand the perceived challenges that clients face when working with different agency types.  Looking at network agencies first, across the whole sample, value is the biggest issue, with 35% of clients complaining that the ‘results don’t justify the fees’. Amongst clients using indies too, this perceived absence of value from network agencies rises to 48%. And for marketers who are already using network agencies, their being ‘slow to take on feedback’ ranks just as high.  But before independent agency leaders get too excited about this whiff of bloat and slowness, how do clients describe their challenges?  Across all marketers, the top criticism of indies is being ‘slow to take on feedback’. For those clients working with indies, the ‘results don’t justify the fees’ comes joint top. And for clients also using network agencies, these top indie frustrations also include a ‘lack of sector understanding’ and ‘lack of proactivity’.  So while issues around money and listening to feedback are consistent across all agency types, this proactivity complaint might particularly sting for indies, who consider it a key component of their agility.  Bottom line: it’s tough out there and no-one’s getting off scot-free. 

Where ownership matters most

To explore how frustration informs intent, we asked clients which marketing disciplines they were most likely to switch - firstly from network to indie and then vice versa.  At 26%, both Digital Product/Service Design and CRM are most likely to be moved from network agencies into indies. Design and Search/PPC are close behind.  Existing clients of network agencies echo the overall story, with Digital Transformation (e.g. digital infrastructure, tech, e-commerce) also ranking highly. This is consistent with marketers already using indies - Digital Product/Service Design and CRM are still most likely to be reviewed out of networks, with Media now close behind.  Interestingly, for clients already using independent agencies, Digital Transformation is far less likely to be reviewed out of a network. Perhaps frustrated clients of network agencies only imagine the grass will be greener until they’ve seen what awaits. To complete the picture for network agencies, what are their ‘safest’ disciplines? The least likely to be switched to an indie are Advertising, PR, Experiential and Social Media. So what about the reverse journey - which disciplines are independent agency clients most open to moving to a network?  Although Digital Transformation and CRM rank highly again, at 28% it’s PR that shoots to the top of the indie frustration league table. That’s bad news for independent PR agencies. Research then completes the top four.  Drilling into the data again, for marketers also using network agencies, PR and Digital Transformation still rank highly. But with 40% CRM is the most likely to be moved from indie to network. For clients currently working with indies, PR remains out in front (or rather behind), with Research and Experiential also showing marked rises up the likely-to-review list.  The disciplines least likely to be shifted from indies into networks are consistent with the opposite journey. Advertising and Social Media remain ‘safest’, but are now joined by Media - so that’s good news for media independents. These rankings are similar across clients who use both indies and networks. 

Dial up differentiation

This research demonstrates how the pandemic has impacted client needs, but there’s no single story about how networks and indies have adapted and prospered.  Although there’s some truth in certain generalisations - including tangible differences like geography or group-wide media buying - the reality is that context is everything.  Marketers need different things at different times - especially since Covid-19. With lockdown causing an urgent refocus on digital, no wonder personalised, data-driven disciplines like CRM and Digital Product/Service Design are most likely to be reviewed - into or out of both agency types. Similarly, more creatively-driven disciplines like Advertising, Experiential and Social Media are less likely to be moved. Perhaps they’ve offered both indies and networks the opportunity to showcase their flexibility.  So what now? Given the pre-existing talent, societal and workplace changes that all agencies were facing within the evolving digital economy, once lockdown lifts, clearly we won’t return to the ‘old normal’.  Will network agencies die? No. Are they changing? Absolutely. Will large clients always need scale? Almost certainly. But with digitally native independents gathering breadth and momentum, marketing and procurement people have more options than ever before. For all agency leaders, the lesson from lockdown is that demonstrating expertise matters. Being generic and timid will make you invisible - to talent as well as to clients. So whether you’re an indie or a network, the race is on: differentiate or die.
Image: Supermarket News

Act fast once you’ve built the dream team

Act fast once you’ve built the dream team

Once your agency achieves the right blend of senior talent, you don't have long to capitalise. Setting your agency change agenda needs to happen at pace. It's a cliché that an agency's most...

Once your agency achieves the right blend of senior talent, you don't have long to capitalise. Setting your agency change agenda needs to happen at pace. agency change agenda It's a cliché that an agency's most important asset is its people. And while I'm not wild about the word 'asset', it's certainly true that good CEOs carefully curate the right mix of skills, aspirations and personalities - especially at Board level.   Whether you're evolving a single discipline agency or fine-tuning a group offer, finding the diamonds and exiting the naysayers is essential.  Once you've achieved that nuanced blend, a starting pistol gets fired. There's a hunger for focus and an impetus for change. Everyone needs to be aligned - from company strategy, down to who's doing what to make it happen.  Right now, speed matters. If the moment passes, then new hires' hopes fade, staff develop 'initiative fatigue' and your rocket ship stalls on the launchpad.  So with your window of opportunity closing fast, how can you quickly bring strong personalities together to agree an actionable roadmap for change?

Finding deeper differentiation 

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

Creating your Transformation Roadmap

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

Jim Moffatt, CEO Europe & Asia Pacific, Engine

Set your course for growth

In an uncertain and fast-moving competitive landscape, smart agencies are embracing the need for fundamental change. That requires decisive action - especially once you've got the right people in place.  And because clients are demanding deeper, more demonstrable expertise, building a differentiated Customer Experience is essential.  So the Agency Transformation Roadmap defines your shortest course to sustainable growth and empowers you and your team to deliver lasting change.  The process creates a safe space to resolve difficult issues. And because you take those decisions together, the shared commitment makes everyone accountable for change.  From there you can accelerate growth with clarity and conviction. Find out more by getting in touch.
Image: Hans Peter Gauster

Why agency founders are rejecting the traditional exit 

Why agency founders are rejecting the traditional exit 

For agency founders, the pandemic has accelerated the emergence of a more sustainable perspective on life, success and cashing in their chips. Ever since the holding company model became...

For agency founders, the pandemic has accelerated the emergence of a more sustainable perspective on life, success and cashing in their chips. Ever since the holding company model became established, the idea of selling out has powered a million fantasies. But like the lottery, your odds of hitting the jackpot were never great.  And for those agency founders who did grab the dangling chequebook, many found that not only were earnouts fraught, exhausting and often unsuccessful, but also life in their newly acquired agency fell someway short of the dream But in recent years, founders have become more measured. Selling out is no longer the default vision and they’re open to a more bespoke conversation about success. And since Covid-19, in amongst far-reaching changes to the market, this transition has accelerated - toward a more balanced and achievable set of motivations.  To unpack why, I picked the brains of Paul Allen, formerly a partner at M&A advisory firm SI Partners and now the founder of his own consultancy, Red Dots

Hi Paul, how are founders’ attitudes changing when it comes to exiting? 

Skepticism about traditional exits to a larger agency has been steadily growing. There are plenty of horror stories about earnouts failing and the new parent company killing your culture or retiring the brand you’ve spent years building. That was always part of the risk of cashing out, but founders are also getting more savvy about needing to be happy with the price on completion, rather than relying on earnouts - especially now that they’re more like 4-5 years in network agencies, rather than three.  The pandemic has changed things too. More people are questioning what they want from their career - and it turns out that it’s not just a big payday. There’s more desire to be in control of your destiny - especially given that so much can go wrong with a traditional exit, from relationships and mismatched culture, to another black swan event like Covid-19. 

How else has the pandemic affected founders’ mindsets? 

It’s certainly shaken up a lot of lifestyle businesses. If your agency’s been going ten years and grown slowly to 10-20 people, only to suddenly find yourself going from a healthy profit to barely breaking even, it’s a big ask to spend another ten years getting back to where you were.  Plenty of owners don’t have the appetite for that, so are open to offloading their agency for much less that they’d hoped. That’s certainly more attractive than liquidating the company and letting your people go.  Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of buyers out there right now who are buying broken agencies on the cheap. They’ll happily take the revenue and offload any duplicate resource, so sadly some people may only keep their jobs for another six months or so. 

On the flipside, there are plenty of agencies in good shape - do they have a new perspective on exiting? 

Absolutely, having survived Covid and realised that no-one knows what’s round the corner, they want to grow more quickly and exit sooner.  Of course, many people want to build and sell without a risky earnout, but that takes a good two years of planning. Founders are getting smarter about this - like not running key accounts and also making themselves less essential to new-business.  As well as reducing a buyer’s need for them to stay on, they’re also locking in top talent, ensuring the next generation of management are incentivised to stay on once a deal is done. 

Is this why we’re also seeing more Employee Owned Trusts? 

EOTs were introduced by the government to give employees greater autonomy. And although this is often still the case in agencies, it’s also an attractive option to founders who can cash out without paying capital gains tax, albeit at what is often a lower valuation than the open market.

No wonder EOTs are often portrayed as the best of both worlds - but for a start, the team you’re selling to needs to be ready, right? 

If you want to leave a legacy - to move on and leave a healthy, thriving agency - then your succession plans need to be solid. It’s easy to assume that talented people will make great owners, but it doesn’t always follow. Being a thick-skinned entrepreneur is very different from being an effective employee. Your next layer of management may not want to run an agency.  So while it’s certainly appealing, an EOT - or indeed a management buyout - isn’t easy. In fact, in some ways it’s harder than selling out to a larger parent company.  To get any kind of multiple, you need plenty of cash in the bank. And of course, like any exit, you need to ensure that profit levels continue or grow. Although you retain the autonomy to make that happen, had you sold to a larger player, you might also have a new set of services to upsell with and a wider pool or clients to go after. You’d probably get a higher upfront cash payment with a traditional exit too. 

Let’s turn to agencies that are aggressively pursuing growth - how has the pandemic impacted them? 

It’s definitely a good time to be a founder who’s willing to invest. In the past, to secure funds to power growth, your bank would’ve insisted on personal guarantees. But with the Covid-19 bounce back loans, the government has taken on the role of guarantor.  That means as well as low rates and long terms, there’s no personal risk. So why wouldn’t you; it’s nearly money for free. This allows you to fund expansion without needing to use up the rainy day money you have in the bank.  You get to invest in top talent, a better office or new capabilities, but you still have six months costs covered, so you can sleep at night. You’re no longer gambling with your own money. 

Which agencies are best placed to prosper from this cheap money, rather than taking the long walk down the organic growth path? 

Not surprisingly, many digital disciplines are in a good place. That’s not just because of increasing demand and often having more retained relationships. It’s also easier for them to add new capabilities.  In contrast, as well as being more project-driven, creative agencies find it much tougher to bring in technical skills than vice versa. Most advertising, PR and design agencies, for example, have histories and cultures of awards and subjectivity. That’s why hiring a new creative lead is often such a risk for them - they’re more fragile and driven by personality.

How are agencies approaching acquisitions now?  

Instead of having the ambition of building one large agency, which can be unwieldy and not that profitable, founders are increasingly looking to build mini groups of a handful of agencies of 20-25 people, each of which can retain a more boutique-y feel.  We’re seeing growth in a couple approaches to this model - neither of which are new. One is pretty organic, where a founder - often with private equity backing - brings complementary agencies together and potentially lists the group.  The second model is closer to the traditional build-and-build, where there’s a rollup of agencies into a group. There’s an exchange of equity instead of cash, so the founder swaps his or her agency shares for a stake in the group business. Then everyone co-owns a multi-disciplinary group, with access to shared resources, cross-sell opportunities etc.  Compared with growing a single agency from, say, 12 to 25 people, which could take a couple of years, both of these approaches gives you scale faster and the potential of selling sooner for a larger amount - especially if the group is deliberately shaped to fill a gap in the portfolio of a larger company. 

So this is another best-of-both-worlds option - you get the scale and the potential upside, but you’ve also spread your risk? 

Exactly. There’s safety in numbers, so you derisk by being part of something bigger. Obviously given the pandemic, this is pretty appealing. Of course, if you’re an agency owner within one of these groups and the worst happens, then your equity will likely drop in line with contribution to overall profits. But it’s certainly possible to negotiate away some of that risk - like paying more for a fixed-rate mortgage. 

Thanks, Paul, this has been fascinating. To wrap up, what advice would you give to founders who are ready to be more progressive with their growth ambitions? 

Primarily, to really grow your business, you need to have a unique and functional idea or concept for the products and services that you plan to offer.  Ask and listen to your clients to assess how you need to innovate to meet their requirements.  Identify your ideal client’s needs and inspire yourself to devise and offer viable solutions, whether that’s by building it yourself, forging strategic partnerships, or through acquisition.  Finally, the use of technology and data to enhance creative output will see many of the recent start-ups overtake the more traditional communications agencies.
Image: Ryan Oswick

The new rules for post-pandemic growth

The new rules for post-pandemic growth

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

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

Back to the hamster wheel

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

Can you even do this anymore? 

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

Old world or new? 

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

New market, new mindset

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

Innovations for agency growth in 2021

Innovations for agency growth in 2021

What are the learnings when a senior client, an intermediary and a global chief growth officer get together to debate where agencies have created most new value in the last 12 months?  With...

What are the learnings when a senior client, an intermediary and a global chief growth officer get together to debate where agencies have created most new value in the last 12 months?  With client needs evolving at pace during Covid-19, agencies have been forced to innovate. And by pivoting services as well as marketing, selling, and managing relationships in new ways, many agencies now find themselves closer to clients than ever before. So, with the pandemic passing and confidence returning, the big question for 2021 is how much we’ll return to normal - and which new habits, mindsets, and ways of working we should aim to retain. This was the topic we explored for BIMA’s recent Innovations for Agency Growth panel, which I was well chuffed to chair. Joining me were Somo Global’s Rebecca Crook, Alchemists' Angus Crowther and former eBay, Sky and Virgin marketing director Rebecca McKee. Two big themes emerged…

Firstly, no excuses - it’s time to get the agency growth basics in place: 

  • Stop saying the same things as every other agency - it’s not ‘just how it is’
  • Create a meaningful proposition - be benefit-led and tell clients stuff they don’t know; standout comes from expertise, not capabilities
  • Define a specific target audience - ‘CMOs with money’ won’t cut it
  • Be more selective - ask clients better questions and say ‘no’ more often; not just when a brief arrives.

Secondly, don’t get left behind - what was seen as progressive is now mainstream: 

  • Make meetings about clients, not creds
  • Develop an ownable point of view - it’s the easiest way to stand out
  • Profit comes from solving a problem - being ‘specialised’ isn’t small / sector based
  • You have to monetise your thinking - you can’t expect to ‘make the money later’ on production
  • The most effective agency leaders are empathetic and commercially savvy
  • Differentiation goes much deeper than straplines and websites
  • There’s a huge opportunity to accelerate ethical change - from D&I and sustainability to flexible working - clients are increasingly demanding better practices, so this is a commercial imperative as well as an ethical one.
Here's a video of the full session - including a pretty average University Challenge joke that I ran into the ground. Thanks for organising a great session on agency growth, BIMA - especially Holly, Alise, Anthony, and Rachel! And if you're interested in some wider resources and recommendations:
Image: Martin Sanchez

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