Stop the Bullying for Ad Agency New Business

ad agencies need to stop the bullying for new business

Agencies have only themselves to blame, making it easy for clients to bully them around. 

Agencies claim to be different but most are pretty much the same and sameness always breeds differentiation based on price.  There has been little innovation from agencies to migrate away from the old model of advertising. It still astounds me how few agencies differentiate themselves on expertise in social media.

Tough times are still ahead for agencies. Long term agency-client relationships are becoming uncommon:

  • CMOs tenures are very short, often less than 24 months
  • The marketing channels have greatly expanded and are more challenging than ever
  • Social media has empowered not only the retail consumer but also client prospects
  • There is a larger battle among traditional full service agencies and digital, media and PR agencies
  • Prospective clients are looking for expertise that most agencies can’t claim because they’ve chosen to be generalists

If agencies don’t want to play the numbers game, they must get away from the mentality that “everybody” is a prospective client as long as they have a heart beat and a budget.

“The common failing among agencies seeking new business,” says agency search consultant Bob Lundin, “is their inability or unwillingness to name what they stand for and market themselves on distinguishable differences.”

The agencies that have been able to step out of the insane agency review process are those that are differentiated and focused. They know who their best prospective clients are and that’s where they spend their time and resources.

I recently became aware of Mike Carlton and I have become a big fan. Mike has spent most of his life in advertising as an agency owner, working for the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), and other agency networks. In an article, “Have Agencies Become Shoemaker’s Children?”, he described what advertising agencies were like at a meeting of “all the iconic leaders of the agency business,” back when he was a novice.

Mike said …

Each one had totally internalized what their agency was all about. How it saw itself. How others saw it. What it was really good at. And what kinds of work it chose to avoid. What it stood for. And what it stood against. Each one lived his agency’s brand every day of their lives. In many respects the brand and the person were inseparable.

And of course, marketers knew precisely what each agency stood for too.

To explore the contrast with what ad agencies are like today Mike conducted an experiement.

To explore the contrast with what it’s like today we ran a little test. We took the capabilities packages from a number of well-known agencies and redacted their names and logos. They were beautiful well written pieces. But all their names and identification were hidden.

Then we asked some agency savvy folks to match-up these anonymous capability packages with the names of the agencies they represented.

The results were not surprising. Match-ups were poor. It became quite clear that each agency was saying pretty much the same thing. Using different words and different visuals but the take-away was the same. It was hard to identify key differences. They were all very vanilla. The universal message was kind of like “We’re great at all things for all people.” And “Whatever you need, we can do that.” Sorting them out was like trying to find the differences between Frick & Frack.

These agencies have commoditized themselves. And they are not alone.

Most agencies are their own worst enemy when it comes to new business. It doesn’t have to be so difficult. But, they must make some difficult business decisions in what they are not.

If agencies keep trying to appeal to everybody, they wont appeal to anyone. But, the rewards are great if they will differentiate.

Agencies that have an appealing point of differentiation to a particular target audience have:

  • Fewer competitors
  • A more focused new business program with less waste in time and energy
  • A much larger geographical market
  • The potential to earn greater premiums
  • More control of client relationships
  • More reliable new business opportunities with qualified prospects
  • The ability to create new business opportunities at less cost

I invite you to read Mike Carlton’s article, “Have Agencies Become Shoemaker’s Children?”, it is excellent. Also follow Mike on Twitter for additional words of wisdom.

Additional articles by Mike:

photo credit: S.Babikovs via photopin cc

About Michael Gass

Consultant | Trainer | Author | Speaker

Since 2007, he has been pioneering the use of social media, inbound and content marketing strategies specifically for agency new business.

He is the founder of Fuel Lines Business Development, LLC, a firm which provides business development training and consulting services to advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.


  1. Michael, another great article.. I want to second the idea that you must must must find your niche. Consumers are looking for products and services that are best in class, and you need to be one of them.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts Trent. I love what you do with Very smart.

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