Agency life 2021 – 4 priorities for better times

Coiled rope in close up

By Matthew

· 9 min

Life leading a marketing agency at the moment is consistently uncertain, with potential misadventures on all sides.

The roadmap handed down from the previous generation isn’t reliable, and it’s hard to know how to make the best of the moment.

It’s a moment in which across the board people are paying attention to different sources and different media, and the centrality, and the continued success of many kinds of advertising within the new context is more than up for debate.

It’s a moment of incredible uncertainty across the economy, uncertainty which varies incredibly in magnitude and dimensions between categories – a dizzying context if you are explicitly a business set up to serve as many verticals as possible.

At the same time, it’s a moment where the modern workplace and workforce is undergoing a seismic shift, driven by the pandemic, demography, financial attrition and waves of overdue societal change. Not exactly easy for an industry that’s been built on an informal, physically-bound, in-crowd culture. Particularly hard for the swathes of it that belong to major networks, with contain untold riches of capability, but significant mobilisation challenges.

Despite all of that, as of this moment agencies are still frequently fertile and dynamic creative business, delivering highly valuable advice and execution, with plenty of resilience. It’s getting harder, and the margins of success are getting finer – but there’s no reason to believe that evolved agencies can’t ultimately be as successful in the next hundred years as they have been in the last. But it’s not going to be easy.

There’s a lot of potentially interesting speculations out there on the ‘agency of the future’, and some pretty successful new or different models in the early stages of rapid growth. But for those who are working hard every day to make their agencies successful, prioritising a few key actions could make a big difference.

Based on many years of experience within agencies – and now a succession of projects helping their leaders to make them better – here are 4 strategic priorities that I think make a significant difference to the lives of agencies as they face the current challenges.

Only play to win

I’ve put this first because there’s no point dodging the elephant in the room – this is a business in which new business processes are its historical lifeblood, and its curse.

It is difficult to think of any other industry that puts so much heart, soul, energy and resource into the process of winning new clients. It’s not at all unusual for the agency’s best and most senior people to spend 50% or more of their year work on new business pitches, even though the new business may represent no more than 10% of the agency’s revenue, and a significantly lower proportion of its profit. Sometimes you can do that, and more, and still lose a significant amount of business within the year, and retain what you have on reduced terms. To say it’s a drag on the business is a colossal understatement.

Others have written, with great insight and logic, about the recurring inefficiencies of the pitch process, and rightly. But as an agency leader in a massively oversupplied market, reengineering the whole industry’s approach is likely to be a slow burn. In the meantime, winning is necessary, and to win you have to play.

They key is, as often as possible, to make sure you do win. This is perhaps a trite truism, but to push the point further, it’s arguable that most agencies are playing at least twice as often as they should, and about 25% less hard than they should.

First, the choosing. I’d argue that on most competitive pitch lists, the pool of potential winners is pretty obvious, and it’s generally one of 2 or 3. The acute and entirely necessary optimism bias of agencies makes that difficult to accept, but externally, it is generally pretty clear to see. If you haven’t been able to map out a clear and logical path to winning, rooted in a real understanding of the client’s needs, and of their contextual limitations, you simply should not be in it. The second-best result in any pitch is not coming second, but stepping back and applying all the pitch energy into something else. Enthusiasm, or politics, or passion, are not reasons to pitch. The only reason to pitch, is to win.

Secondly, if you are in it, commitment is everything. Never go in with the wrong people, or a tick-box response. And never, never say anything at all to the client that isn’t linked into a thread of argument that connects what you can do to what they have to have, or what they are going to be delighted in. There is no other form of pitch worth delivering, other than one with a clear red thread, a path to winning, and total commitment to making it happen.

Know your method

A great kitchen is a system – built on methodology, proprietary recipes, a chain of command, a rigorous supply chain, a distinctive ethos and a set of unbreakable values. And the end result can be exquisite, even if ultimately the cover price is less than £50.

Agencies are systems too – but so often founded on personal practice, improvisation and late-night panics. Sometimes the outputs are spectacular…but the journey to get there is very rarely smooth, or even explainable. Even though the cover price is usually six figures.

The essential, cross-pollinating leakiness of the agency process is possibly an integral part of its magic formula. But in a world where clients are searching for transparency and resilience, and employees are looking for flexible, remote-ready working practices, knowing how you do things best is a good idea.

Agencies can be resistant to methodology. They can contest that customisation is so frequent that repeatability is a low priority. Many would also contest (quite reasonably) that processes are so common across the industry that it’s impossible to create anything differentiating (process here seen through the lens of pitching – see above…)

I think these are understandable reactions, but whether it’s the core working/thinking process of the agency, or the process of pioneering a news service or capability, devising, documenting and improving your method is one of the few true ways to both drive efficiency and quality at the same time.

And if you can’t make it totally differentiated, then at least make it distinctive, and real – infused with your culture, your quirks and your unique combinations. It will help to bring people together – and exert a gravitational pull on clients too.

Test tubes as used in a scientific method

Change with more certainty

Agencies love change. Spending a morning with the websites and credentials of a set of marketing agencies is like reading a set of travel brochures for the future.

They understand change. They can often predict change. They can build a vision for how things will be after the change. But they are often appalling at managing change.

It’s an inevitable corollary of all the dynamics described above – sitting at the crossroads of the future and the past, of multiple different stakeholders – that finding structural solutions to business problems leads to a lot of competing thoughts about what the future could hold.

But this business rests entirely on the contents of people’s minds, and that means you need to offer psychological safety to enable people to collaborate and create. Therefore there is almost nothing worse than to say to your people: ‘Things are going to change, but we don’t quite know how’. Yet this is a constant state of being in many agencies. And it’s unhealthy.

This kind of uncertainty is not easy to fight, but there are at least a couple of extremely healthy routes to pursue.

One is prototyping. Rather than imagining new services, products, team structures or business units, it may be much better to find a controllable situation in which it can be tested rapidly in the real world. To pilot a new approach, test and learn, and then decide whether to scale and reapply. And, crucially, not only on new business pitches – which may play a role as R&D for the industry but are also a fairly poor source of data.

The other, of course, is highly structured change. Not starting the process of change until the vision and the principles of change are crystal clear. It makes the chances of successful and sustainable execution of structural change significantly higher.

A railway track as a clear path to change and better agency times

Remember: you don’t own talent

Finally, of course, let’s not forget that even with the best new business approach, the most refined methodology and the most seamless change management, agencies are powered entirely by the people who deliver the work.

The temptation is to think about agencies, or networks, as massed armies – talented individuals bound together, drilled in a certain way, and sent out against the enemy.

But in reality, the talent that can drive your business could so often be:

  • Just passing through for a year or two, possibly en route to becoming your client
  • An employee secretly dreaming of turning their side hustle into their main thing
  • A freelancer or independent worker who’s become a natural part of the team
  • A partner or supplier who is just as dedicated to your success as you are

In fact proper engagement with external talent is also a great potential solution to one of the agency’s great solutions – the gradual diminishing of product innovation, because of the decreasing appetite for risk. Once you remove the assumption that you have to buy and build everything, and look outside for genuine partnership, there is suddenly an abundance of low risk product development opportunity.

To get the best massed ranks of talent behind your flag, it’s not just about grabbing it and holding on to it. It’s about nurturing people, and giving them multiple interesting career paths. It’s about creating networks of collaborators outside your own boundaries, and being flexible about how you work with them. It’s about purposefully finding different, new ways of working, which give you more agility, and them more flexibility to work how you want.

Growing plants represent agency talent


Running an agency in the current environment is hard, and pressurised, but there are small things you can do that can make a big difference:

  • Pitching with care, and then playing with full commitment to win
  • Defining and maintain a distinctive working method
  • Changing with certainty, through clear principle and prototypes
  • Approaching talent with a mindset of development and partnership

Hook Strategy helps organisations to move forwards with shared strategic clarity. If you are an organisation seeking unified thinking, get in touch at or by calling +44 (0)7780 481717.

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