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.