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The Everything Business

By Chris Ross | March 30, 2017 | 2 Comments


One of the most memorable agency pitches I’ve ever seen hinged on highlighting homogeneity. I worked at a large telecom company in a business unit focused on the small business space. We were doing a full agency review and had all the big agencies of the day in the mix. Like any big agency review, it was an amalgam of smart, charismatic, articulate agency execs presenting thoughtful, inspired ideas followed by other agency teams with ill-advised, swing for the fences, “aren’t we edgy and creative” hairbrainery.  Anyone who has been through these reviews knows this process can be super interesting and also extremely painful.

One agency did something that made a lasting impression… They started their presentation by showing a sequence of ads from multiple companies who, like ours, were targeting small businesses. They had converted all the images to black and white and covered the logos and text so it was impossible to discern who the advertiser was.  

The collection of ads and images offered a painfully cliched representation of how everyone was attempting to connect with the small business market. There was Joe/Jane standing in front of their barber/bike/beauty shop, often with arms folded, toggling between looking serious and smiling but amazingly similar across a wide variety of brands and product categories. If you close your eyes right now you can imagine exactly the ads I’m talking about. The agency’s set up demonstrated how homogeneous the communication to this audience had become. Our team had a very visceral reaction to their presentation and it set in motion a mandate to speak to our audience in a more distinct fashion. (And yes, that agency did win the account)

This was my first year joining Jay Wilson and Lizzy Foo Kune on the Magic Quadrant for Global Digital Marketing Agencies. One portion of the exhaustive MQ process involves receiving briefings from all the participating agencies. All 20+ of these briefings happen in an immersive two week period. It’s not surprising common themes emerge, but it was startling how similar many of the agency stories were to one another. Here’s the quick agency composite pitch…

“Agency X lives at the intersection of data, technology, creative, innovation… we’ve done work for these big brands and are focused on the importance of customer experience. We’ve also developed an amazing, proprietary brand/experience methodology and operate an innovation lab.” This is the black and white, covered logos pitch that was so common across agencies.

In defense of all the agencies, the pitch is common because it’s relevant. Clients need agency partners with data, technology, creative and innovation expertise. Customer experience is the new competitive battleground and agencies with solid CX methodologies can provide tremendous value. The challenge is that while the presentations were relevant, many were not at all differentiated.

How effective do you think an agency will be differentiating your business if they aren’t effective telling their own story? There were agencies that did a beautiful job, and not just those that landed as leaders. In fact, some of the firms placed in other parts of the Magic Quadrant were better at communicating their positioning and strengths and didn’t attempt to be everything to everyone. Their clarity, focus and self-awareness was refreshing and made for a stronger overall story. Positioning 101 means picking your space and actively deciding on areas where you will NOT play. You can’t be a luxury brand and the low-cost leader at the same time.

The “we do everything” story mostly creates a challenge for buyers. If you’re evaluating software, you can either see and use a feature or you can’t. It’s easier to validate the reality of what a software or technology vendor offers. In the agency world it can be harder for buyers to determine how “real” a capability may be. They say they have experience in mobile, but what exactly can they do? They claim to have deep data expertise, how do I assess what they’re really capable of? When everyone has a variation of the same story, and that story includes everything, it puts more burden on buyers to get to the realities of what is truly available. When everyone looks the same on paper marketers need to do more work to put agencies through their paces and uncover the realities of their capabilities.

The difficulty level is compounded as agencies and consultancies begin to collide, merge and integrate. Everyone is getting into everyone else’s business further muddying the waters.

Clients have increasingly complex, integrated needs and have clearly stated external marketing partners will continue to be an important resource. The demand side is there. For agencies, the breadth of expertise is important but the mix and proportion of practice areas can’t be the proxy for positioning. A good agency should be more than just the sum of its practices, going to market with a message that transcends their collection of capabilities. Right now, some agencies get this, others are still figuring it out.

For marketing leaders, you have access to an agency landscape filled with incredible talent, but getting to the reality of what agencies can actually do can be a challenge. Agencies, you have marketers hungry and eager for your support but unclear on how you may be better or different than your competitors and the more capabilities you add the greater this problem is likely to become. Agencies should take the positioning counsel they might provide to a client, reflected well in this quote from Simon Sinek… “You can’t be everything to everyone, but you can be something to someone.”

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  • The volatile economy is forcing both agencies and clients to do business with smaller teams than they had in the past. This leaves both the partners with young but less experienced personnel and contributes to a general increase in stress and distrust as they are asked to do more with fewer resources.

    Your post is clean and explains the subject very well. Thank you Christopher for sharing it with us. Best wishes!

    • Chris Ross says:

      Hi Suresh, very late reply, but thank you for the comments on the post. We do see both agencies and clients working with smaller teams in many cases and managing the need for dynamic skills is a challenge for all. Thanks for the comment.