Greg Paull
Apr 24, 2014

Agency, position thyself

Agencies are great at positioning their clients. Themselves...not so much.

Greg Paull
Greg Paull

In one of my favourite scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the titular “messiah” character, played by Graham Chapman, tries to explain to the masses that they are all unique, all individual and all different. One wag shouts back, “I’m not!”

I was reminded of this line when we finished and published our R3 / Campaign Agency Family Tree, a labour of love covering more than 500 agencies across multiple disciplines, markets and areas.

My inbox and phone lit up within minutes. One call was from someone on the internal marketing team of one of the region’s best public-relations agencies (I really can’t say which one), who said: “Oh, you have given us the colour of public relations, but we are so much more than that—we are a 360° integrated marketing communications agency. Can you change our boxes?”

Suddenly my eyes glanced over the table as if blinded by this. The 500 agencies all merged themselves into the same consistent colour. I saw a table of nothing but media-neutral, client-centric, digitally focused, 21st-century, 360° brand-building ‘specialists’. I recalled a line I had heard many times before: “Agencies are so good at building other people’s brands—why not their own?”   

When you are asked to mention a creative agency spontaneously, who do you recall? If you are a marketer based in China, two thirds of you spontaneously recall “Ogilvy”, which has become the “Band Aid” of agencies for that market. Ogilvy has consistently invested in its brand and built a clear identity.

Only a few recall BBH and Wieden + Kennedy, but those few clearly recall them as strong on original creativity. In fact, a small agency of 80 people, BBH is mentioned twice as much as shops three to four times its size. It’s no secret why: BBH has dedicated its time to clearly positioning who it is, and stayed quite true to itself.

As someone fortunate enough to sit through many agency meetings a year, we see the work they put in, the hours they commit to new business, existing business, potential business, any business.  It takes a certain breed to be so driven and disciplined, to cope so well with rejection and client feedback, to be motivated to always seek creative solutions. Yet amongst this focus, too many agencies have lost the gumption to invest time to really position themselves. 

Tim Williams, a US consultant to agencies, wrote a much more poignant piece than me on this topic, making it clear that while agencies continue to have a ‘full-service’ offering, few really have the ‘full service’ clients to match. And those that do tend to have smaller clients or brands who are not sophisticated enough to manage multiple agency partnerships.

The time has come for agencies to focus themselves and become famous for something unique, not  just for the generic ability to build clients’ business. 

The concept of the AOR is dead. We live in a multi-agency world. In the US, R3 recently surveyed 150 top marketers, to discover that half of them managed at least five digital agency relationships—creative, search, mobile, media, social, etc. etc.  While we all long for this to all be done under one roof, the reality is, marketers continue to seek out best-of-breed.

If you’re a marketer, you need to truly select agencies that have a clear point of view and are very comfortable in the space they are in. They need to be proven collaborators, not controllers, and they should be rewarded for that. While there’s a lot of talk about marketers evaluating agencies and agencies evaluating marketers, we’re now using our CAPE software tool to have agencies evaluate agencies as well. What does my media agency think of my creative agency? Are they truly team players? How can they both improve?

If you’re an agency, you need to find your niche or accept the fact you will get sucked into the vortex best described by Michael Porter’s five forces: too many players, too much strength from the buyers, too much competitive rivalry and too many substitute products.

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who despite my advancing years was still before my time, said it best: “I don’t want to be known as the best of the best. I want to be known as the one and only.”

Greg Paull is principal of R3 (, an independent consultancy focused on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of marketers and their agencies.



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