Agencies Should Start Thinking More Like Consultants

For the last five years, my account managers have called me Mr. Scopecreep. I’ve never been able to see a problem and not try to fix it, even if it’s outside my lane or scope of work. As a result, I tend to get involved in conversations or meetings I may not technically be getting paid for. While this used to be viewed negatively — I over-serviced my clients, I worked longer hours than I should, and I was responsible for more than a few bright red cells on profitability spreadsheets — I’m starting to think it may not be.

After nine years as a consultant and five more at ad agencies, I’ve realized maybe the problem lies in how agencies build scopes of work rather than how I’ve interpreted (or ignored) them. When I was a consultant, our clients bought our people. They were buying our consultants’ specialized expertise, unique experience, or both. The who was more important than the what. In the agency world, though, our clients tend to buy the stuff our people produce.  The what is more important than the who.



Unfortunately, because much of what agencies produce has been commoditized, clients have squeezed agencies on costs. This has driven profit margins down and pitted agencies against one another in a “how low can you go?” game that doesn’t have a winner. Consultants, on the other hand, have stayed above this. Instead of selling stuff, they continued to sell the people who create the stuff. And that’s a lot more difficult to commoditize.

From Deloitte Digital to Accenture Interactive to IBM’s iX, big consultancies have taken advantage of the gap agencies created. They’re buying up agencies and integrating them into their management consulting practices, giving clients true business partners who also now offer cutting-edge creative marketing services, too.

If agencies want to compete, they have to start thinking more like consultants. Here’s how.

Sell your people, not what they create. If there’s one thing clients hate, it’s when an agency wows them with senior people and then passes the work to junior staffers without the same experience or expertise. Spend time talking with clients about who will work on their business and commit to keeping them on the business. Make sure clients understand the value your agency brings to the relationship isn’t what these people create, it’s having these people on your business.

Invest in your people. One of the complaints agencies have about marketing their people is there’s a lot of turnover and they need flexibility to switch out people as needed. You can’t market your people if you can’t hold onto your people! Consultants invest in everything from onboarding to training to tuition reimbursement. If agencies invested more in treating their people like primary assets instead of secondary parts, the clients would, too.

Be a partner, not a vendor. To manage razor-thin margins on what’s becoming more project-based work, agencies have gotten good at creating detailed, specific contracts. This keeps client requests focused and the agency from losing their shirt in the process. Unfortunately, it also means the agency doesn’t see the forest for the trees. This turns agencies into little more than vendors responsible for creating a deliverable. Consultants, on the other hand, strive to be strategic partners who focus on solving business problems and integrating the systems, processes, and people required to run the business.  

If agencies started thinking more like consultants, they’d realize the real growth opportunities lies in partnering with clients to write the briefs instead of only executing against them.

7 comments about "Agencies Should Start Thinking More Like Consultants".
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  1. Steve Schildwachter from Enterprise CMO, LLC, December 28, 2016 at 10:31 a.m.

    Steve, while I generally agree with your analysis, there's one missing element:  Agencies have (mostly) lost their ability to consult.  Recently a big agency president confessed to me that he doubts his account execuives ever read sources like The Wall Street Journal; they can manage an ad project but are less likely to be able to offer business solutions.  See:  https://admajoremblog.blogspot.com/2012/11/account-management-at-crossroads-ii.html  

  2. Steve Radick from BCWGlobal, December 28, 2016 at 10:34 a.m.

    Steve - and that's why it's so important that agencies re-think professional development and invest in getting those folks to start doing things like reading the WSJ, or hell, even keep up with current news and events. It's a little bit of a chicken and egg thing, but I think the agencies have to make the first move and start acting like it first before the clients start asking and paying for it. 

  3. Stuart Dornfield from Stuart Dornfield, LLC, December 28, 2016 at 10:53 a.m.

    I think the biggest problem I have with your theory is the use (or misuse) of the term "clients."
    The client is made up of layers of people who have their own agendas and silos. If agencies can have direct contact with the CEO or President on the client side then an agency has a greater chance to be a valued consultant and make an impact on their business. But there are layers of people between the agency and the CEO/Pres. who often find us to be in competition with them. Why would a CMO or Marketing Director want his agency to have direct access to the CEO and offer strategic insights...it minimizes his/her contributions as the company CMO or Director fo Marketing. In many cases, the Accentures of the world are brought on by the CEO, so the CMO has to play nice. Back in the 80's and 90's, I had direct access to company principals and my business soared. Today, it's rare to have that kind of access. Especially on a day-to-day basis. Good agencies see the forest from the trees. We just need a chance to share our talents to the decision makers.

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 28, 2016 at 12:46 p.m.

    All very true, Stuart.

  5. Tom Cunniff from Tom Cunniff, December 28, 2016 at 3:27 p.m.

    This would have been terrific advice for the ad agency business in the early 1980s. But today, it would be impossible.

    Marketers have well-established workflows and relationships with consultancies that are purpose-built to deliver what is needed. And, those consultancies have staffing, processes, culture, etc etc that is optimized to deliver what they deliver.

    IMO it would be just as hard to turn a brilliant ad agency into a great consultancy as it would be to turn a great consultancy into a brilliant ad agency.

    P.S. For that very reason, I think that even if agencies had tried to pivot to consulting in the 1980s very few would have succeeded at it. The cultural changes and financial investments would have been a bridge too far.

  6. Steve Radick from BCWGlobal replied, December 28, 2016 at 6:18 p.m.

    I'm not suggesting wholesale flips from agencies to consultancies or vice versa. I'm just saying that agencies would do well to start thinking like consultants more often. There's no one or the other - both should be striving to think like the other, and the consultants, by and large, have done a better job at thinking like agencies (either through acquisitions or training) than the other way around.

  7. Kevin Horne from Verizon, January 1, 2017 at 2:07 a.m.

    You should have been here for the same discussion circa 1998...

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