Bob Willott recently wrote on Brand Republic about the peril of ‘fancy new sales pitches from fancy new agencies’. Although aimed at the ad industry, his criticisms are applicable to comms agencies in general.
I could probably sum up my response to Bob’s piece in one sentence: If you set up a comms agency in the middle of a recession and all you have are ‘gimmicks’ or ‘uniquely meaningless unique selling propositions’ you will not survive.
But this isn't just true of start-up agencies; I have seen many a well-established agency strapline that has made me cringe.
His direction to new agencies like my own is to ‘stop trying to be different and be better at being the same’. However, I would argue that to be better is to be different. To function at a higher level, fundamentally, there has to be something you are doing in a different way.
And if an agency borne of the second decade of the 21st century doesn’t offer slightly different services to one of the tail end of the 20th century - by way of social media skills, content generation skills, multi-platform campaign execution - it will not be match-fit.
It's a bit of a generalisation to say that clients often just want better. A lot of our leads have come from clients who think their incumbent is perfectly fine at what they do, but they want to do things a little differently.
In fact, more than a handful have specifically sought out a start-up as they believe they will get a different level of energy as well as a different - possibly more exciting - approach to ideas.
The fact that we can also be - have to be - more nimble with pricing, means that the plucky start-up becomes an even more attractive agency option in a recession.
Underperformance can never be masked, even in more flush economic times. ROI is only part of the equation and in my experience, marketing directors or comms chiefs are not daft.
If they don’t see innovation and constant striving for better, it doesn’t ultimately matter if sales are good. Complacency is frequently what loses accounts - good can always be better. Every start-up has to live and breathe this mantra as they build their portfolio and prove their worth, which often means they are willing to push that extra bit harder and deliver more.
That said, no agency exists in a bubble: to say that start-ups have no track record would be to disassociate the founders from - usually - pretty fine communications pedigrees. And as start-ups we have to set our standards as high - if not higher - than the big boys because we know we have to punch above our weight.
Proliferation of choice in agencies categorically, absolutely and definitively does not equate to a lack in calibre.
From my own perspective, the foundations of the business are delivering against the clear vision of the kind of agency I want to build, generating brilliant work that our clients are demonstrably proud of and creating a team that makes coming to work a pleasure. It’s surprising how different even these simple objectives can make you.
Ultimately, however, being different and being brilliant need to be comfortable bed-fellows. There is no point delivering off-the-wall ideas if the strategy is off beam (obviously) and there is no point generating content for a client where the target audience wants to be convinced in good old black and white.
If your team can deliver stunts but can’t run a smoking-hot press office, if they can tweet their hearts out but can’t manage reputation in a crisis, again, you will not survive.
But that brings me on to the debate of why no-one these days wants to be known as brilliant generalists. That will have to be for another time.