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Agencies 4 Growth Festival Logo

Why agencies can’t be all things to all people

Photo by Samson on Unsplash.

When you work in a network agency group, regardless of its ownership, you often see some familiar behaviour being played out. Aspiring to be everything to everyone, driven by a demand for growth via M&A, is something every agency leader has experienced at some time. But what’s the point of it? In my mind, it’s pretty crazy to think that you alone can be the agency for every client. Some might even call it arrogance.

There’s been a lot of talk about transformation in our industry, and the need to replace legacy models to better reflect the needs of the client. The reality is that many brands still engage with agencies in a largely traditional way. I believe many agencies’ desire to transform is rooted in a business FOMO: it’s the fear of missing out on new business because you don’t provide a competitor’s service.

‘They’re speaking to McKinsey, too.’ Shit. Hire some consultants.

‘We need an agency that understands Amazon.’ Quick, build a marketplace. (Disclaimer: building a marketplace is not quick).

‘Sure, we can source all your telephones for you.’

Think that last one’s a joke? You’d be surprised.

Personally, I like being sold to. But I like it when someone knows their niche and their subject. I’ve never bought anything when I was uncertain about the seller’s specific area of expertise.

Knowing your weaknesses has long been held as a positive trait, but not at the expense of knowing what you’re good at. How are clients supposed to know where to turn, or what ‘good’ looks like (let alone ‘great’) if the experts present such a complex view of the landscape? There is a point where the message of being a generalist reaches dilution and, conversely, a point where too many specialists results in siloes. Diversification of services is great, so long as the proposition is credible. Because those specialist options? They’ll quickly call you out if it isn’t.

The major holding companies have been scratching their heads about how to bring diverse agencies and cultures together. The key is to retain their individual specialisms and expertise - to be brilliant at each thing they do and to be even greater than the sum of their parts when they come together to solve a client’s problem, no matter the discipline

But not all agencies behave like this. Some build from a position that they can do everything on their own and – while it may well be true – it can lead to confusion. True integration, in my experience, is more readily fostered from a deep understanding of the client, where a single lead has developed the relationship and can build a multi-disciplinary team of specialists around them.

Many marketers have experienced the fallout from agencies’ rush to diversification first-hand. However, are we doing enough to change the status quo? I’d say not. The realisation that one size doesn’t fit all, is easy to fall upon – perhaps less easy to let go of (when your legacy model is to do everything). So, what’s the answer? How do we make the landscape easier to navigate for a marketing budget holder?

We need to define parameters. ‘Digital’ has become a catch-all when it’s really more complicated than that today. That’s one just obvious example of an area where we need more clarity, to help clients cut through the noise. There’s already so much choice – and it’s added to nearly every day.

I think we as agencies have a critical role to play in providing that clarity. If we want to be considered as partners, rather than suppliers, these are things we need to address today. In some cases, we’ll be giving advice that results in someone not choosing us, in going to a competitor, or choosing a different model. Why shouldn’t we? You can’t be everything to everyone.

Stu Lunn is managing director at Havas Media Manchester

Stu Lunn is speaking at the Havas Media event Setting the Standard on the morning of Wednesday 11th March in Manchester. To register interest in attending, sign up here.

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