improving new-business success

How to create agency-wide clarity

How to create agency-wide clarity

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

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

What you can expect

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

Take action

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

Help your team and help yourself

Help your team and help yourself

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

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

So what can you do?

Rather than endlessly getting dragged into the weeds - and doing your strategic thinking at the weekends - another option is to offer them a different kind of support. B-Suite Bootcamp is Co:definery’s group mentoring programme designed to help your future leaders and new managers 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, the group co-creates a new step in participants’ personalised ‘Game Plan’ – from setting goals and changing mindsets, to building habits, overcoming hurdles and avoiding burnout.

B-Suite Bootcamp offers your brightest people a range of benefits:

  • Six 90-minute remote workshops, tailored to their real-world priorities
  • Personalised Game Plan for success, including practical tools and techniques
  • Daily support via our bespoke B-Suite Bootcamp community and mentoring app
  • Curated reading list for deeper learning.
All this for a deliciously good price of £1,495 per person. And if you're a BIMA member, you get a tasty £300 discount. The next cohort starts on September 26th and runs until 31st October - on Zoom, every Monday from 11am to 12.30pm BST. Places are filling up fast, so if you'd like to book or ask any questions, just get in touch.
Image: Halfpoint

Can clients explain your proposition?

Can clients explain your proposition?

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

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

Give clients what they need

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

Powering the client's vision

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

Going beyond straplines

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

Stand for something

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

Ready to write? Where strategy and expression meet

Ready to write? Where strategy and expression meet

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

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

What do you actually do?

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

Who's your target audience?

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

What makes you different?

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

Strategic rigour, clearly expressed

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

B-Suite Bootcamp: Helping future leaders thrive

B-Suite Bootcamp: Helping future leaders thrive

A fast-paced group mentoring programme to help rising stars perform better, build their confidence and feel more fulfilled in their work.  Sitting just below the C-Suite, the so-called...

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

What is B-Suite Bootcamp? 

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

B-Suite Bootcamp benefits:

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

Programme overview:

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

Additional testimonials: 

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

Defusing your leadership timebomb

Defusing your leadership timebomb

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

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

Exhausted and considering an exit 

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

Failing future leaders

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

Beware the B-Suite timebomb

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

Help your rising stars to shine

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

Are you the marketer the industry needs?

Are you the marketer the industry needs?

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

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

Mismatched incentives

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

Beware dysfunctional agencies

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

Telling agencies how to price 

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

Changing a broken market

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

A new commercial conversation 

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

Time to be the grown-up

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

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

Load more
To chat with a member of our team about Brand Echo, please fill in your details below and we'll get back to you shortly.
Enjoyed this?
Then subscribe to Breaking Bland - a quarterly digest of ideas, invites and articles to help you stand-out and grow faster.