Agency Agony Uncle

By The Drum, Administrator

May 15, 2008 | 7 min read

Got a problem? Don't! Let Uncle Carl solve it.

Dear Uncle Carl,

There’s been a lot talked about plagiarism lately. First there was Sugar Puff’s crimping debacle and now JWT has ‘been inspired’ by the OK Go music video for its Berocca ad. Inspiration and plagiarism - where do you draw the line?

“Is there a thing of which it may be said, ‘behold, this is new?’. It has been long ago, in the ages which were before us...” That’s from t’bible. There is ‘no new thing under the sun’ I’m afraid, so at some point there will be similarities within executions of work.

Similarities could be taken as a compliment whereas too close for comfort can be taken as an infringement of copyright! It’s my experience that as ‘original’ as people try to be, they cannot stop being influenced by what they are subjected to on a day-to-day basis as consumers – in fact, they are probably more ‘visually-aware’ than most consumers. So, some of that will invariably find its way into their work. Also it’s likely to find a resonance within a client who unwittingly approves the concept because actually they have already seen something similar and liked it! Imitation is not a bad thing if it doesn’t cloud your messages and confuse your proposition. Be aware of the trends, but adapt them, don’t copy them.

Dear Uncle Carl,

Every agency claims to be different. Some even say ‘I know every agency claims it’s different, but we genuinely are’. They all have slogans like ‘media-neutralised’, ‘seamless communications agency’ and ‘outside the box thinking’. Do any of them mean anything? And as part of our up-coming rebrand, should we consider using one?

You need a point of differentiation, but I agree with you – is there one, really? I still believe you have to be huge in order to offer ‘seamless communications’ or you have to be laser-like focused to be ‘specialist’. You can build on your experience to be different; ‘multi award winning’ or ‘specialist in retail/medical/educational’. You cannot be the best (hard to prove), newest (tomorrow someone else will be newer) cheapest (mistake), so your point of differentiation has to be fact: ‘most Yellow pencils’ or quirky, ‘best DM agency in Otley’.

I like the quirky ones. The only real point of differentiation that no-one can steal from you is an emotional one. So can you create an emotional positioning for your agency? Whatever route you go down, try and avoid a collection of meaningless ‘agency, client marketing’ speak. A brand positioning should be a promise, a promise you can back up.

Dear Uncle Carl,

Are ‘creative differences’ ever enough to resign an account?

Now, make sure you are not confusing being passionate with being precious. However, if you feel you are offering the best advice and the client is deaf to your recommendations, which may ultimately reflect badly upon your agency’s reputation and your staff’s abilities, then sod it – walk away. If you are in the lucky position of not needing the business and you simply feel it doesn’t sit well with your own ‘ethos’ then again, walk away. If I lie awake at night thinking about it, then I face up to it and I sleep more easily.

Dear Uncle Carl,

We’ve never entered awards, but have produced some of our best work to date this year. How important is it to win awards?

My old agency had over 140 regional, national and international awards but I don’t recall seeing one pound on my P&L in profit that was attributable to them. I do recall the costs of entering and attending them and buying a display case for them. So on paper they may actually be a liability! But, they are an asset – they bind clients to you, they create and motivate teams, they are great events for wining and dining your clients and staff but also let you meet your peer group too. They are a fantastic PR tool for profile-raising, client and staff attraction and retention but be prepared to lose more than you win. It’s a slippery slope as you need to keep winning – the ones you won ten years ago don’t impress anyone!

Dear Uncle Carl,

We’re considering merging with another agency. From a financial, client and skills-base point of view, everything is spot on. But how do we make sure there’s a good cultural fit? Is it something we can manage after the deal is done?

One tip is be aware that around 20 percent of your staff will have no interest in the merger or take any positive part in making it work. In fact, they may be downright cynical about the whole exercise, seeing it simply as a way of making you very rich.

There will be another 20 percent who think it’s fabulous and a really good move on both a corporate and personal level. Then there are the rest, those are the ones you need to persuade and cajole into backing the idea and being part of the changes ahead. Do your best to communicate the same information at the same time to them all. Bring them together outside the workplace to meet and get to know each other. Perhaps create cross-business teams to look at new business, finance, systems, creative with a view of taking the best practices of each area and applying it across the ‘group’. Allow individuals to work in the other businesses. Seek out cross-selling opportunities at a speed that makes your staff comfortable, not at a speed to balloon your P&L. Easy really.

Dear Uncle Carl,

I run a medium sized PR agency and recently discovered that one of our account directors, let’s call him Dave, has slept with half the female work-force at the agency. Kudos to Dave, you might think, but it’s actually causing a lot of jealousy and friction amongst the team. How should I approach this delicate matter?

No, I don’t think ‘Kudos to Dave’ - Dave actually sounds like a bit of a scum-ball to be honest. Now whether that’s because your Uncle Carl has the morals of a Victorian Methodist or simply because that kind of behaviour is plain crass, you can decide. Either way, it will be said that Duvet-Dave isn’t actually doing anything wrong, but if you feel you have to talk to him regarding his Casanova exploits, then perhaps scare the little lothario to death by telling him there is talk of a sexual harassment claim against him and you are trying to defuse the situation. It sounds like he has had a long list of conquests so he will not be able to qualify which of his easy-going-it-takes-two-to-tango-horizontal-colleagues it could be and it may keep his flies zipped up or force his hand to leaving before things turn nasty. You probably only know the half of the truth though and if he is an account director, doesn’t it make you wonder to what extent he has been ‘servicing’ his clients?

Are you troubled? Don’t be. send all your questions for the drum’s agony uncle to Or, If you wish to meet with carl to talk about your business, then simply email him on


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