I’ve seen, and written, more than my share of agency new business proposals over the years. Stepping back from a recent one, I realized that the proverbial agency new business presentation is a decent snapshot of the struggle agencies face today.
The most glaring characteristic is that today’s new business deck is a series of small parts and details. The larger cohesive narrative is lost in the granular explanations necessary to address a fragmented media environment. Each deck still has the standard stuff – agency background, management bios and case studies. Then there’s the agency competencies section, the workflow processes with their “proprietary” terms and of course the strategic recommendations. Taken at face value these are usually obvious statements. “Know your customer really well.” “Build your marketing around your customer.” “Start with a clear strategy.” “Integrate your message across all touch points.”
Marketing agencies approach clients preaching the value of differentiation, yet they themselves rarely differentiate in a substantive manner. When you set aside the veneer – the lexicon, the fonts, the colors and stylized graphics – the substance of what is being communicated and sold by any agency is rarely very different from competitors.
This problem is compounded by the belief that ‘no one reads anymore’. I am all for brevity when called for, but at a certain point, if you strip away enough words, it is impossible not to sound like everyone else. All that’s left are the buzzwords and jargon.
The second challenge is the endless expansion of the arena in which agencies must compete. Not only do they have to explain how they work, who they’ve worked for, who does the work, and what the result was, but now also how they handle data and what their technical capabilities are. Then they have to prove that they are on top of social media, responsive design, mobile, apps, big data, Vine, Snapchat, etc. etc.
Any agency that answers all the questions asked in an RFP produces a behemoth deck that is hard to tie to a cohesive narrative let alone wade through. I’ve always wondered how much of an agency pitch deck is actually read, absorbed and remembered – especially when you get halfway into a stack of twelve agency pitch decks. It’s not surprising that the budget, which is always the last slide, tends to be the first one looked at. It is a sign that at some level, most people believe all agencies are basically the same. In parity markets, price drives decisions. That’s a dangerous position to be in.
Some time ago I read the book Blue Ocean Strategy which put forward the idea of zagging when everyone else zigs. The exercise was essentially to identify industry conventions and map where everyone landed. Then, you’d look for areas where no one was competing and start there – hence the open “blue ocean”. The idea seems obvious, but doing it operationally (as opposed to just with a coating of marketing spin) is not easy. So I decided to run the agency model through this process. In my mind the commonalities among agencies are these (in no particular order): They all…
- Offer ‘case studies’ which are brief and uninformative
- Claim expertise in any industry – CPG, healthcare, finance, tech, whatever
- Do everything – online, off, digital, social, CRM, local, mobile, events, viral…
- Preach integration across touch points (which is related to the bullet above)
- Claim to offer strategic thinking
- Advocate for data and research at some level
- Believe the consumer should drive all marketing
- Claim their people are their most important asset
- Have proprietary processes
- See themselves as service oriented and client-centric
- Insist that marketing is all about ideas… preferably big ones
Ok, so let’s zag now and see what we’re left with:
The emerging agency looks like it would be a highly specialized company that focused on doing one thing very well, likely in a narrow set of client industries. They might contribute to strategy but would not assume to deliver the broad strategy given their narrow focus. They would eschew too much research and data analysis and wouldn’t necessarily believe the consumer knew what was best for them. They wouldn’t talk as much about their people being the source of their success. They’d steer clear of proprietary processes and speak in plain language. Client service would obviously be a part of their business, but they wouldn’t be lapdogs and might occasionally take a hardline or even fire a client that didn’t work. Lastly, while having ideas is expected of any business (how does one achieve innovation without an idea?) they probably wouldn’t hang their hat on the tried and tired “big idea” spiel that’s been pedaled up and down Madison Avenue since Bernbach’s day. Who knows, this company might even keep some secret sauce unrevealed. No case studies. No “how we did it”. Instead, a little mystery.
Three things struck me as I typed that passage above.
First, that description looks a lot like the kinds of small agencies that get bought up by the big holding companies once they achieve an early level of success.
Second, it feels a little like Apple under Steve Jobs; Aloof, secretive, a bit arrogant, extremely confident and somewhat rebellious with an air of “my way or the highway”. The kind of outfit that believes in what it does so much that it’s willing to settle for a smaller, more passionate client base (which Apple did for decades).
Lastly, that company would likely never create a PowerPoint deck as a means of winning business and may not even deign to respond to RFPs that require it to do so. (After all, this confident company would know that by putting itself in the boxed-in world of deck-as-RFP-reply, its chances to truly stand apart would be greatly diminished.)
This invented agency would struggle to be sure. It would have a hard time as all iconoclastic businesses do initially. It would be mocked by industry leaders and panned by the trade press. It would make enemies as well as friends. And likely make some big mistakes too. It is certainly not a guaranteed financially viable model. Most certainly, it wouldn’t be an agency for every client – which is precisely why it would definitely be the perfect agency for some clients.
Importantly though, on the same desk as the other dozen replies to the RFP – assuming said agency chose to participate – this company would stand out and stand for something. That’s got to count for something in a marketing presentation right?