A recent article by Blair Enns has re-ginited an age-old question: should agencies be re-inventing themselves?

My answer is that question is — of course.  But this isn’t a new business development strategy.

Agencies have been re-inventing themselves since they started.  Grants, the pace is very different but how an agency works and how it sells have always evolved.  In the beginning we sold signage and shouting.  Stand on the corner and shout the loudest — because your market place was pretty much the reach of your voice.

Then, agencies sold cleverness and the ability to be remembered, a la David Ogilvy and his cronies.  In some ways, that was the heyday of branding (at least on the consumer side) and it’s been limping along ever since.  Again — because there wasn’t all that much noise, you could still talk to everyone and hope it stuck.

Then in the 70s and 80s, agencies shifted their business development strategy into selling stuff for our clients. We took the cleverness of the era before and made tangible things out of it. Some of it was media assets but a lot of it was printed materials etc. The ideas and cleverness didn’t stick for as long so we also sold a lot more albeit short term ideas and then executed on them. Think about the catchy TV based taglines of that era — like “Where’s the beef” or the theme song for the perfume Enjoli that taught us that a woman can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. I think that’s when the mediums started getting crowded and we began really fighting for eyeballs and attention.

Then technology smacked agencies on the rear end — and we became tech experts.  Suddenly we were selling execution and the ideas themselves were not the point.  If you don’t remember that era — go back to early websites. Ugh. This was also when the idea of niche markets started to emerge, because we realized we couldn’t control or contribute to all of the channels any more. We still sold some stuff….but while technology brought us great new opportunities, it also turned our stuff into a commodity.  How many newsletters were lost to a secretary who had Publisher?  Again….quality was not king (or often even thought about) during this phase by too many clients.

And now….where are we?  The profits in stuff making is continuing to erode. Only now it’s worse because some of the people out there doing it for $5 aren’t half bad and our clients can’t recognize the other half.  I think this next phase is going to turn us into business consultants who oversee execution but don’t necessarily do it all.  We’re going to get deeper into the nitty gritty of sales goals, sales funnels, distribution channels etc. and the agencies who are winning today are having those sorts of conversations. If you give me a dollar and I give you $3 in sales and we both can see the correlation — I am not a commodity.  I am valuable.  You could care less how I get it done as long as I don’t break anything (your brand).

The other place people are really knocking it out of the park is when they combine digital and PR. So agencies that are doing content, lead gen and placing their clients in the media — that combination is not something our clients are able to replicate for themselves very well.

I think the biggest barrier for agencies — is the agency itself.  We have to stop thinking about selling execution and instead — selling results, whether those results are media placements (PR) content/SEO and results as a offshoot of the content/SEO and sales.  That’s a huge shift for agencies to make but it’s clearly what the marketplace is rewarding.

So, should agencies be re-inventing themselves?  Yes.  Every. Single. Day.  It’s our responsibility to stay smart, stay relevant and stay valuable. If we don’t — our clients would be wise to fire us.

But, there are some things that I believe are evergreen.  Agencies will always sell (in my opinion):

  • Ideas — crazy, big ideas that some clients will have the courage to try
  • Business solutions that drive sales — if you can tie your activities and counsel to sales, you are not going anywhere
  • Outsider thinking — clients can’t accurately describe the outside of the bottle because they’re inside.  You’re not. That gives your perspective great value.
  • Orchestration — even if you aren’t doing all of the executing, many clients still need someone to orchestrate the whole symphony
  • Being that thinking partner/sounding board — our clients need someone outside of their own company to push and pull on ideas with them.  They need someone who is ready to be honest but open minded and that’s you.
  • Relationships and influence — let’s face it, you know people they need to have access to and your relationship can save them money, get them ink and open doors.
  • Safety net — you’re the ones who are running around under the client, holding the big net.  It’s your job to anticipate when they’re at risk, catch them when they fall and save the day.

Whether your business development strategy involves SEO, traditional PR or making giveaways for their trade show booth — you need to be both solidifying the foundational activities that make you invaluable (see bulleted list above) and always looking for what’s coming around the corner.

Reinvention is a constant in our world.  But it always has been.  There’s nothing new about it.