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Agencies Agency Models Value Proposition

Agency leaders: Screw playing it safe. It’s time to step up.

By Roland Gurney, Founder



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September 13, 2023 | 8 min read

In a market fraught with risk, agencies are widening positioning and dialing back on boldness. But Treacle’s Roland Gurney says it's time to put their stake in the ground and make brave decisions.

A pair of feet, stepping onto a rickety wooden bridge

Calling agency leaders! The time for courage is now! / Benjamin Davies via Unsplash

Try to appease everyone, and you’ll appeal to no one.

When the world wobbles, leaders often turn to de-risking strategies to help them survive and thrive. This normally involves moving to a more generalist positioning, offering everything to everyone. Casting a wide net like this means agencies can capture more leads and decide who to work with, rather than filtering prospects too early.

The downside? It leads to dull and diluted positioning, messaging, and marketing.

Lofty but meaningless statements abound. ‘Navigating the future’; ‘delivering global impact’: wide enough to appeal to anyone, but empty enough to not resonate with anyone in particular.

Impending sales pipeline pressure has made agencies nervous, so they’ve reverted to the safe but generic approach. But for many, having a focused positioning and client-specific messaging were the reasons they thrived in the first place.

A quick Google search of any agency category will throw up a hundred shops that look, sound, and feel relatively interchangeable. Most have the same website layout, with some huge intro statement along the lines of ‘we are X agency’ or ‘the leading marketing agency’. Great for SEO, but hardly overflowing with the strategic creativity these agencies say they bring. Leaders aren’t pushing to stand out and put their necks on the line right now, instead preferring to be part of the pack, with their heads in the sand. But it’s the wrong strategy for long-term success.

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Being nice isn’t a strategy

Since the Covid collapse, many agencies want to diversify their client base to manage the risk of any one industry imploding. Often, they lead with an overarching, generic message and then use sector-specific landing pages to appeal to each audience. From a lead generation perspective, this is a smart play. But from a brand perspective, it means vague and uninteresting messaging that makes most people yawn.

Instead of proudly nailing their colors to the mast, agencies are turning to softer ways to build alignment with prospects. Vision, mission, and values used to be the kind of brand fluff agencies kept in a dusty internal deck somewhere. Today, this stuff is front and center, saying to prospects ‘sure, we don’t really do anything different but we’re nice people, so choose us’. A lot of trees have been planted, which is great of course, but a lot of this ‘purpose’ is a band-aid for weak positioning, differentiation, and decision-making.

The same is true of agency culture and people. Sure, these are important, but they’re rarely the reason an agency is chosen in the first place. Your ‘tight-knit team of thinkers, makers, and doers’ is lovely, but so is everyone else’s. Trading on ‘we’ve got the best people’ is so subjective it’s pretty much a moot point.

Where are the leaders who lead?

There’s a trend for today’s agency leaders to be inclusive and democratic in their decision-making. While it’s admirable to involve others, this design-by-committee approach usually leads to bland and average outcomes. Leaders aren't leading, they’re delegating and facilitating. Few are sticking their heads above the parapet, which is where the best decisions come from.

As a result, big strategic decisions are often being made by the wrong people: middle managers driven to protect their own careers and interests rather than rolling the dice on a risky new positioning. Sometimes the desire to go wide comes from salespeople who want to hit targets and bonuses and feel that fishing in a small pond seems silly while the waters are choppy. But agencies need a visionary at the helm who has the foresight, firepower and bravery to steer the ship towards something, anything, in the pursuit of standing out and succeeding.

It’s natural to revert to comfort zones, table stakes, nice-to-haves, and generic platitudes when it feels scary outside. But this defensive mindset rarely leads to a successful defense. Instead, it normally leads to boring on the outside, panic on the inside. Teams don’t know where the agency’s heading, so they lose confidence. Prospects don’t get what you do, so they look elsewhere. And leaders worry the ship is sinking so they jump from department to department, desperately fixing holes.

Step up and steer the ship

The world will always be uncertain. The economy will inevitably wobble. Our AI overlords are looming on the horizon. Clients will always take stuff back in-house. Agency leaders can either pass the positioning responsibility down and hide away in hope, or they can step up and make some big strategic decisions that may (or may not) take the agency to the promised land.

Right now, agencies need their leaders to step up and drive the strategy for their next stage of growth. This means finding a focus, defining a difference, pushing for a focused positioning, being brave with messaging, owning an area of expertise, committing to a cause, or solving a specific problem. This is the best way to succeed in a market that feels like it’s moving and changing constantly.

Too many agencies are laying low in the mushy middle ground along with the other million lookalikes. Ironically enough, this is the riskiest place to play.

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