In those days, when advertising agencies were invented, they probably had ownership of an entire region and focused on word-of-mouth. After a time there was competition and clutter, and agencies needed to find ways to differentiate. Some probably focused on verticals (apothecaries, the aforementioned blacksmith). Some paid closer attention to the media as their focus and expertise (i.e., cave writings, smoke signals) to get the word out.
Fast-forward to the modern, 360/365 digital world. Audiences and employees alike are engaged in digital all of the time, everywhere. As it was in the prehistoric days, agencies are still looking for ways to differentiate themselves.
COVID created an opportunity for outsourcing work in ways that hadn’t been possible back in 2018. All of a sudden there was more work than there were people to do the work, so agencies became an important piece of the equation again.
I saw about 15 or 16 agency pitches during the last three years, and what surprised me was the lack of true differentiation. Many agency pitches have become diluted, with digital agencies doing offline while traditional agencies do digital. Agencies talk about reporting and data management as value-added services, and they charge for them that way -- even though these are core to whatever an agency does. They speak to customer service and support, but also outline the process for overages on time and rounds of revision for creative.
It’s not the agencies’ fault. It’s the industry. The last 10 years have been about the commoditization of agency services -- and as a result, their pitches have become about process and how they bill, more than the ideas themselves.
Not too long ago, an agency was considered a partner. These days, an agency feels like an add-on that has to be treated differently than you would treat your team. Agencies get upset when you push too hard, and they push back. It can feel antagonistic in some cases rather than complementary.
There are agency-client relationships where the partnership is real, but it always tends to feel like money is the driving force rather than performance or the relationship itself.
In this environment, how does an agency really differentiate itself? if you ask me, it is still about creativity. I don’t mean the actual creative, although that can certainly help. I mean the ability to creatively approach and solve problems. These can be design or media problems, or just general problems. For me, the differentiation is the feeling that we are in this together, we will do what needs to be done, and that we never take “no” for an answer. A good agency is willing to look at a challenge from different perspectives to find the right solution.
Of course, I'm an idealist and I have been since I was in the agency world myself. I once stood on a table in a pitch and guaranteed the prospective customer we could hit their goals, and we did. I stood on a table in jest, but it was exaggerated to make a point: I knew we had the team and the training to find an answer to their problem. I never met a problem that couldn’t be solved in some way, even if that meant changing the dynamics of the problem itself.
A differentiated agency is one that focuses on the solution rather than the process and management of the process to arrive at the solution. A great agency never lets process get in the way of progress.
I bet the earliest humans in the Paleolithic era believed that, too.
(Yes, I realize agencies probably did not exist then, but can you prove they didn’t? I didn’t think so.)