Big is beautiful, right? After all, nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM. Size means access to brilliant minds. Size means economies of scale. Size means peace of mind. Size means stability, security, success, stature.

That’s why one of the first questions prospective clients often ask is “how big are you?”. Indeed, agencies have been known to ‘rent a crowd’ during pitches so that clients think they are bigger than they are.

But what does a successful agency really look like for a client? One that puts input above output? One that views engagement as quantity over quality? One that prioritises prospects over clients? One that values golden pencils over client objectives? You decide…


People or profit – what’s the more compelling number?

Here’s a thought – instead of “how big are you?”, how about “how profitable are you?” Doesn’t a track record of profit say much more about stability, security, and success?

A few years ago, we managed to gatecrash a pitch for a large B2B client. I wanted this one for lots of reasons and they had been on the watchlist for a while. The client amiably allowed us to pitch but with a stark warning that we couldn’t possibly compete with the larger agencies pitching. On the final scorecard we came out top for strategy, creativity, and client service. Nonetheless the account went to the big London shop. Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM. I understood, of course, but when I asked the client what sort of team he was working with, it was no bigger, no better, no more experienced than the one we offered. But that team, and the client, had the perceived security blanket of a big shop with lots of people he would never get to work with. It’s time to redefine what success looks like.


Likes or loves – what’s more meaningful?

For some time now, there appears to have been a concerted effort by some agencies to win likes, often at the cost of brand (and sometimes personal) integrity. Although falling short of kissing babies, the strive for social votes has driven some ‘leaders’ to post some extraordinarily crass, often contradictory, content. I just can’t help feeling they will end up like ‘two jags’ – with egg on their face. Is the size of your following more important than the quality? Does facile commentary take precedence over meaningful, insightful content? Does the need for adulation (or simply attention) by thousands replace the need for a smaller number of quality connections with people who can make a difference to you and your business? It’s time to redefine what success looks like.


New client wins or existing contract renewals

The agency model has always been about winning new business. Pitches are exciting, adrenaline fuelled events – the tense weeks in the lead up consist of much navel gazing, hand wringing, and creative fist fighting as the agency strives to land the big prize. And in my experience, the account lead (who by the way is not likely to ever be seen by the client again), comes in at the eleventh hour and seagulls all over it, meaning the 148-page slide deck needs reconfiguring while the client waits in reception.

Pitches are exhilarating, but they are also time consuming and exhausting. And who suffers the most from this feeding frenzy? The poor Account Exec charged with the PowerPoint amends? Possibly. The crayon cuddlers trying to make sense of a nonsensical proposition? Perhaps. The existing clients who have seen all their work put on hold or slowed in the meantime. Certainly.

Don’t get me wrong, we all want new business. It fires the intelligence muscles. It sparks the creative imagination. And it pays some bills. But we need existing clients more. And those renewals should be just as equally celebrated. Again, we are measuring the wrong numbers. It’s time to redefine what success looks like.


Awards or loyalty

We all love a little recognition – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and all that. And in no other industry is esteem more cherished than in agency land. Our industry has literally thousands of awards and we spend literally thousands of pounds pursuing prized pieces of plastic (that might just win an alliteration award by the way). But let’s all be truthful, shall we? Award submissions are part fact, part fiction, and a whole lot of creative elaboration based on the aspirations of the agency.

We have a few trophies, but we have many more testimonials and case studies. And we have even more notes of thanks for helping, for thinking, for being creative, for being clever, for being there when our clients need us. Not necessarily warranting a black tie or an overpriced bottle of Pinot Grigio in a W1 venue, but certainly worthy of recognition and absolutely more important in terms of driving long-term, collaborative, mutually loyal relationships. It’s time to redefine what success looks like.


Bottom line, the current agency model is screwed

Agency land has been procrastinating for years over all kinds of big-ticket issues – from diversity and glass ceilings to the perennial omni/single channel business model. One thing it has never waivered on is ‘big is beautiful’. But this strive for agency actualisation will mean for many, especially right now, that they cannot feed their families. It’s time to redefine what success looks like.


We know what real success looks like

Now, more than ever, clients need agile, creative intelligence that demonstrates value. They need an agency that understands the real agenda, one that can help them make money while protecting the brand. They need an agency that will be brave, that will give them ideas they haven’t thought of and yet understands the market well enough to remain relevant. They need an agency that is invested in their objectives, not one constantly chasing break-even at all costs. They need an agency that has ambition, but not at any cost, one that will grow sustainably, responsibly and remain stable. They need an agency that understands what real success looks like.


PW – July 2020