Agency transformation needs transformed leadership

Covid-19 has accelerated the need for agencies to change and this requires leadership that is high-functioning, high-performing and built on trust.

Having made tough decisions and supported your clients, you’ve emerged into this worryingly open-ended "new normal". But what kind of agency do you want to be when all this is over?

More specifically, how will you create competitive advantage by finally adapting to the changes the agency market has seen in recent years?

This requires real transformation. And for that to happen, it’s critical that your leadership team runs together and that your agency runs with you too.

Rethinking growth

Even before the pandemic, the pressures you’re facing were well-established – from in-housing, new competitors and oversupply to margin pressure, the talent crisis and a lack of differentiation. No wonder IPA president Nigel Vaz restated his agenda to "transform in order to best partner with our clients for growth".

Now Covid-19 has accelerated changes in how clients buy. They’re facing new problems with less money, more urgency and higher risk.

As Engine European chief executive Jim Moffatt says: "The pandemic has forced agencies to look at how they operate, where they’re efficient and whether their proposition and offering need adjusting. Doubling down on agility and adaptability, with a laser focus on moving the needle on client business, seems the only way to go."

This genuine client-centricity is a huge opportunity for agencies, but only if you reboot how you stand out. In a crowded market, you’ll need to challenge outdated behaviours and mindsets.

For example:

  • Get upstream – make the brief, don’t take the brief
  • Be consultative – help, don’t sell; be genuine partners
  • People don’t buy people, they buy experts
  • Classic "land-and-expand" growth can hold you back
  • Evolve leadership from top down to trusted collaboration

These are business-wide shifts. And this step change in differentiation has moved from important to critical. Agency leaders must act now.

The leadership challenge

Real change starts at the top and doesn’t stop there. An "initiative" or two won’t cut it. But you don’t need to tear everything up and start again. It’s about focus – knowing what to stop doing, as well as doing more of what already makes you effective.

This is evolution, not revolution. It requires a more deliberate, agency-wide connection between strategy and tactics, as well as a leadership model tailored to make change stick.

On the commercial side, standout thrives when you align your proposition, marketing and sales, plus roles, responsibilities and metrics, as well as structures, process and pricing. As Co:definery founder Robin Bonn recently argued, you need to "make yourself scarce – you can’t be a partner when you’re a commodity".

And to establish the behaviours needed to embed these changes, your leadership team must be 100% behind you – and be able to collaborate with genuine trust.

Of course, some agencies do need wholesale change to optimise for growth. Others just need a little course correction. But regardless of where you start, vision matters and the devil’s in the detail.

Your window of opportunity

Transformation can no longer languish in the "too hard" pile. But turning the tanker doesn’t mean boiling the ocean. Instead, fast-paced change prospers through targeted intervention.

Agencies are people businesses. Although they often face similar challenges, every solution is unique. There is no "average", "ASAP" is too slow and "best practice" sets the bar too low.

Transformation requires bespoke thinking alongside real accountability for change. It’s about knowing where to start and then joining the dots.

The pandemic has created an opportunity to address fundamental issues that have been looming for years. But to thrive as the market recovers, agencies must take decisive action now.

Ask yourself: if not now, then when? Your competitors will be using this time wisely.

Lawrence Weber is a partner at Curve

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