Presumably Roger Parry’s article The Consultants Cometh raised a few adland eyebrows when he suggested that most agencies aren’t in the results business.
Sadly, he’s right.
And not only do most agencies focus on craft over outcomes, but very few are meaningfully positioned at all.
Look at any 10 agency websites. They’ll all have some big claim up in lights. But at least seven of these so-called propositions will be just a pithy rearticulation of advertising, rather than an offer of unique expertise.
This focus on "the work" is past its sell-by date. Even its funkier modern offspring, "creating culture", is just a variation on a theme. As for promising "ROI" - could the opposite ever be true?
If you think any of this creates standout, I have bad news: the 70s called and it wants its new-business strategy back.
As Roger rightly suggests, in a complex world, clients want problem-solvers. They need specialist surgeons, not a swarm of GPs. No wonder Unilever’s Keith Weed is culling 1,500 agencies that don’t "offer any differentiation".
The days of your capabilities being USPs are long-gone. Who cares which instruments your surgeon uses; it only matters that she can fix your brain.
Obviously it never used to be like this. Disciplines were few, boundaries were clear and your wares dominated the airwaves. Just offering advertising – however you described it – was positioning enough.
And although a "cog", "gorilla" or "meerkat" will still catch clients’ eyes, you’re now offering a lot more than brilliant ads.
So in our dizzyingly dynamic mix of channels, technologies and platforms, agency standout has plummetted. Clients largely see you as generic – especially in London, where any one of 50 shops could credibly chase all but the biggest accounts.
Compounding this issue, your lemming-like optimism compels you to pitch for anything that moves. So at the risk of mixing my rodent metaphors, you’re in a hamster wheel, scurrying to stand still, clinging to the mantra that a one-in-three win rate is okay.
It’s not, guys. It’s really not.
And now the consultants’ tanks have arrived, FFS.
So, what to do? Well, to paraphrase The A-Team, when clients have a problem and no-one else can help, you can get back on the front foot – in new-business and beyond.
For one, being in demand means the client is no longer the prize – you are. When experts push back, they gain concessions. Overly long shortlists, no decision-maker access or onerous payment terms can all be negotiated.
Similarly, having scarce expertise evolves qualification beyond just a one-off yes or no based on "fame, fun and fortune"; you create powerful, lasting leverage.
This sets the tone for the relationship. If your clients ever make vague demands at 3pm on a Friday ("can you cost-up a new campaign by end-of-play?"), ask yourself when that precedent was set. And if you can’t stand up for yourself, then you’re probably easily replaced.
At the end of the day, it’s an insanely oversupplied market. Standing out takes more than a snappy rewording of your discipline. Not solving a specific problem makes you nigh on invisible.
So pick one thing, be the expert and deepen your knowledge. Seek out clients who need it and ignore the rest. Ever see brain surgeons doing boob jobs? Exactly.
Here’s a sense-check: if your new-business target list matches your competitors’ ("chief marketing officers with money", anyone?), then you haven’t dug deep enough. Similarly, having sector experience isn’t differentiation – it’s table stakes.
Ultimately, it’s bloody hard out there. Boundaries are blurry, everyone claims to do everything and phrases are hackneyed five minutes after they’re coined. The good news is that all agencies have it in them to find a unique proposition. It’s not even that hard; it just takes a bit more thought than it used to.
So are you an overworked GP, languishing in a sea of sameness, doing your best with whatever ailments pitch-up in your waiting room? Or would you rather be a surgeon, providing deep expertise to patients who need it; being valued, well paid and happy?
Don’t think too long. Seriously.
Robin Bonn is the founder of Co:definery - a new-business management consultancy.