Did you read this morning's stunning headline that Mo Farah, Kenenisa Bekele, Stanley Biwott, Chris Thompson, Charlotte Purdue, Mare Dibaba, Desiree Linden, and Caroline Rotich have all decided to compete in the decathlon from now on?
No. You didn't read that, because that would be absolutely mad for loads of elite athletes to abandon their specialisation after years of honing their craft. They understand that cross-training is smart, but going all-out in multiple sports isn’t sustainable. It simply isn't possible to compete at peak level across multiple events that, while on the surface may seem related, require vastly different mental and physical conditioning and ability. The risk of injury and burnout encourages these champions to make smarter, calculated decisions with a steadfast focus on their endgame.
The determination to own the game you're best at seems obvious, right?
Yet, over the course of the last decade, agency after agency has moved their expertise to a side dish in favour of offering a full menu of consulting, programmatic, social, partner, mobile, influencer and email marketing, ecommerce, sales automation, SEO, CRM, PR, analytics, data integration, CX, UX, UI and technical development services.
Stop reading now if that didn't make you recoil at least a little bit.
The pitch I hear most often in favour of going full service is that it allows an agency to demonstrate a genuine understanding of the client’s business strategy and remove friction, miscommunication, and sloppy handoffs from one firm to the next as you bring together all the pieces needed for a holistic marketing plan.
Have you ever been to a Chinese restaurant where the buffet featured osso bucco, shellfish paella, bangers and mash, and salmon nigiri alongside the Kung Pao chicken and Peking duck?
If you have, I am a) stunned you're still alive and b) insanely curious about where and why you decided to dine at this establishment.
My point is that trying to be right for everyone makes you right for no one. Your output across all offerings is inedible. And the outcome is just, well, gross.
The idea that one roof over everything removes friction is a sham. Each unit is still performing different functions, and as such, comes at their work from a slightly different perspective. You’re not achieving efficiencies, you’re just making lazy decisions.
You might be shaking your head right now, either because you think you're the rock-star exception and your freaking extraterrestrial team bangs it out of the park on every single project for each and every client, or because you've been hiding under your desk for weeks worrying about what you should do while the big consulting firms are grabbing up formerly-known-as-creative agencies on the daily and the pressure to compete with that resource level is crushing you.
It certainly seems like everyone is running a full-service agency these days. And client satisfaction levels have never been higher. Companies are finally realising ROI on their creative for the first time in history.
If you buy that, I’ve got a cosy little seaside cottage in Saskatoon to tell you about.
The truth is, multiple client and agency surveys are revealing the same thing - people are wising up to the shower of buzzwords. If you thought you were at risk of losing clients to someone else because they could do more, watch those clients walk out your door with a scornful look of disappointment that you promised everything and then didn't deliver, or at best, did so at a mediocre level.
When everyone in the industry decides to be an architect, there are no plumbers, electricians, masons, and carpenters to actually build the house. Too many full-service agencies are pitching grand plans right now without the proper people and skills to execute on them.
Trading your position as a specialist shop who can deliver concrete outcomes on specific challenges for the seemingly impressive “full-service” title is giving up on being a star player in League One to go sit in the nosebleed seats at a Premier match. You’re a speck in a sea of sameness, yelling to get attention among thousands of others screeching identical maxims. Your agency isn’t competing, it’s coalescing into a homogenized horde.
Could be I’ve jumped the shark with metaphor overkill. But, here’s the deal. Calling out the full-service deception is not new or revolutionary. Loads of incredibly smart people - practitioners - have lined out the reasons why you should niche down, or continue, as a creative specialist. (Read this here, here, here, here, and especially HERE for a tiny slice of what I mean.)
Yet, you haven’t listened to those voices of reason. What I hope is that just maybe you’ll latch onto one of these analogies and embrace the universal logic you’ve been defying.
In the introduction to this series, I asked if you were clear about why you exist. Not honestly answering this question is why many agencies find themselves giving in to what they believe are client demands for a "one-stop shop."
The problem is that you’re taking for granted the client has answered the existential question for themselves and that their strategy is not reactive or seeking short-term results instead of a well-considered long view.
Chances are more than good they decided to work with you because of your core expertise and portfolio of jaw-dropping creative you did back when that's all you wanted to do. It's human nature to ask for more, so the client does when they've got another itch they're unsure how to scratch.
And because it's also human nature to compete, you can't stand the thought of someone else scratching that itch. So, you make a promise to deliver far more than you should. What you need to appreciate is that you can’t truly make accurate decisions in a complex situation unless you’re confident about what you can deliver when it matters most.
Trying to compete and compare in this way distracts from the creative-led focus the client came to you for in the first place. This significantly increases the risk of not producing the outcome they really need, and damaging not only the relationship but also your reputation.
In all fairness, I concede there are situations where operating a full-service agency could make sense. However, my specialism is not in helping generalist agencies find their path to success, and extending this article another 1,000 words to play devil’s advocate would cut into my time to read up on the Black Caps’ undoing.
So, how do you relieve this pressure to compete with full-service agencies?
Blair Enns suggests committing to the following proclamation:
“We must simply choose to take control, first by specializing and shifting power back from the client toward us, and then we begin to shape our future.”
If that sounds a little too simple, reflect for a second on the very first client who ever paid you for your creative work. What problems did they have when they first came to you? What outcomes did you produce for them?
You started your agency because you believed you could repeat that process. Most likely at that point, you had zero thoughts about how big you should grow, how many other services you should offer, or how to optimise data-driven design. Your biggest concern was to create original concepts that connected with real people.
That's how you started and that can be the exact same path you take to growing, and in some cases repairing, your agency.
The debate about full-service versus specialist is not limited to agencies and it is not likely to end anytime soon. If you’re fed up with being compared on the length of your services menu or pushed into the commodity game, then change the conversation.
Have you committed to niche down?
Tune in for the next post as we tackle the second reason you're not winning your endgame - lip service.
Go, fight, win!
Or you can just go to Twitter where the conversation is heating up as we swap stories and actionable tips to relieve the pressure so creative agencies start winning their long game.
Jump in with your thoughts using #AgencyEndgame. We promise to keep the sports metaphors on a short leash.
This post is the second in our series examining the 7 reasons creative agencies are missing their mark in the long game and what they can do to overcome those obstacles.
Here's our roadmap.