Lots of agencies sound the same, how can potential clients tell the difference?

How do agencies differentiate in an increasingly crowded landscape? They need to remember agency selection is still a people-to-people business.

With October seeing the release of Econsultancy’s Top 100 Digital Agencies report (sponsored by MiQ), I decided to take a look at the language of the agency profiles within and compare it with previous years to see if I could jump to some rather unscientific conclusions about the state of the industry.

Though my analysis is not particularly robust, there was an element of agencies aping the language of consultancies over the years.

I went back to 2015’s rankings and found that, interestingly, the agency profiles did not hammer the words ‘experience’ or ‘customer experience’ as much as I had expected.

IBM iX, however, is described in the 2015 report as “a digital customer experience consultancy”, and of course the ‘X’ in its branding itself refers to experience.

Accenture Interactive is described in its press releases from that year as helping “the world’s leading brands drive superior marketing performance across the full multichannel customer experience”. Fast forward to 2019 and the company has doubled down, declaring in the 2019 report, “Accenture Interactive is the experience agency” (my italics, there). Its 2019 profile mentions the word ‘experience’ seven times.

The agency world has followed, it seems. Mentions of ‘customer experience’ and ‘experience design’ in the 2015 report numbered 33 and eight, respectively. In 2019, these numbers have grown to 45 and 16.

Digitas is the ‘connected experience’ agency; Dept “delivers end-to-end experiences”; and Beyond accelerates “transformative customer experiences using design and technology”.

You get the picture.

The consultancies have always tackled broader business challenges than ‘digital’ and so they bring that whiff of the boardroom to their spiel.

An overlapping trend is the fading of the word ‘digital’, at least in the crucial first sentences of an elevator pitch.

WPP’s Mark Read, in an interview with Econsultancy, commented that: “We’ve been trying to ban the use of the word digital at WPP. All of our agencies need to be ‘digital’. I’d rather say we were more precise. We should talk about technology, which is really what we mean when we say an agency is digital.”

How agencies differentiate

Agencies, on the whole, are keen to talk about strategy, technology, creativity, data and design. This seems to have emerged as preferable to the phrase ‘full service’. Gone, too, in many cases, is the upfront talk of the likes of SEO and CRO, and even of media.

The consultancies of course have always tackled broader business challenges than ‘digital’ and so they bring that whiff of the boardroom to their spiel. Agencies are therefore adapting to show their own agnostic, problem-solving acumen.

Here, it is worth reflecting on Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital, coined at Government Digital Service: “Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

To me, this definition shows how broad digital now is and we shouldn’t be surprised that the word itself fades slightly in positioning, scattered less frequently as adjective or adverb (even in the Top 100 Digital Agencies rankings).

So where does this leave agencies, how do they differentiate? And how can clients expect to tell them apart.

Mark Ritson has written about this dilemma in Marketing Week. He explains that increasingly global clients are consolidating their requirements as competition has grown. This, he says, is why “WPP hopes a smaller cadre of agencies with more horsepower will win the day against Accenture, Google and an in-house team of 300 down the road.”

Most memorably, Ritson writes: “Whisper it quietly around Soho but most of these agencies now all offer the same thing.”

Well, that’s certainly how the copy sometimes reads in Econsultancy’s rankings.

How to choose an agency

For clients trying to choose an agency, analyst Sean Hargrave highlights some key trends in his essay in the Top 100 Digital Agencies report, paraphrased as follows:

  • Data control – Brands want ownership of the data their campaigns generate. How will agencies work best to share insights?
  • In-house / on-site – What will agencies do to ensure that they can work efficiently and at speed (one of the issues which is driving in-housing). How will the big agencies show they can be nimble?
  • Flexibility – Can clients build a team with hand-picked experts from each required discipline, to serve a strategy drawn up in partnership?
  • Transparency – Do clients have oversight of budget that goes on media, to the agency and advertising partners.
  • Strategy and big ideas – How do brands play a part in this process?

When it comes down to it, there are key elements to agency selection that don’t change. Two of them are talent and culture.

Clients should ask, ‘What does an agency stand for?’ There may be echoes of the brand purpose debate here (some think the idea is hokum), but it’s clear in the Top 100 that some agencies are striving for meaning.

This Place, for example, “wants to make a meaningful impact on the world and create for people”. You may ask what that means and how it is evident in the work, and as a potential client you can.

Agencies still need to understand the stakeholder at the client and what value means to them.

Four Communications Group explains what it stands for from a talent perspective: “We are an agency where a diverse range of people and skillsets thrive and grow. We take into account flexible working practices, account structures and deliverables to create meaningful work and sustainable, exciting careers.” Admirable stuff that brands can interrogate.

There are clues as well in this year’s Rising Star, who is nominated by the industry. Amy Williams of Good Loop runs an ‘ethical ad platform’ that rewards consumers who choose to watch an ad by donating to their chosen charity, while delivering better ROI for advertisers.

I am not suggesting that revenue will take a back seat here, just that agency selection is still a people-to-people business. Clients want to know what drives the people with which they work. And vice versa. Agencies still need to understand the stakeholder at the client and what value means to them (it might simply be making money, or it might be driving an issue up the agenda internally to create a proof-of-concept for a change in strategy).

Ultimately, an increase in competition among agencies may just mean that more of this hands-on, people-to-people, independent-style approach is needed. As TSB CMO Peter Markey says in the Top 100 Digital Agencies report, brands need partners who “get in the trenches… and roll up their sleeves, and get involved and help drive a step change in performance”.

To borrow a phrase from business development consultant Ben Potter, agencies should know that “wheeling out the same old, generic, ‘yawn-a-minute’ creds deck should be avoided at all costs. Every situation is different, so while a value proposition ensures a consistent, overarching message, only by asking the right questions will you uncover the specific needs in any given situation.”

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