Recently, I came across a fascinating blog by Praveen Vaidyanathan, strategy director at Vice Scandinavia.
His piece, "Ad agency philosophies and taglines of the global 700", took an in-depth look at how the great and the good of adland position themselves; how they articulate what they do that makes them better than everyone else.
If you haven’t read it, get on it – it’s a right old sobering read.
Vaidyanathan's conclusion will confirm many an agency owner's deep-down existential fear about their own shops: "Although ad agencies may be good at articulating distinguishing features for brands and products, they struggle, and are in most cases lazy, when it comes to articulating a distinguishing feature, ie an agency philosophy for themselves."
According to Peter Thiel in Zero to One, if you’re not creating something new, then being in business is a broadly pointless and unfulfilling endeavour. So it's startling and quite depressing that we’re all so… well, alike.
As well as making a dizzying read, Vaidyanathan's list highlights the lack of any discernible difference between agencies competing in the same market for the same customers and how they fail to focus on what their target clients really want. Or, to put it another way, how the agency world at large seems to completely miss the point as to why they exist.
I’d argue that the underlying driver behind all agency appointments has to be growth. Growth is the one key metric that matters to them.
Acceleration. Progress. Growth. Improvement.
Only three agencies out of 700 talk about growth. Only one agency out of 700 mentions improvement. Lots of talk about creativity. Lots of chat about brands.
In Clayton M Christensen’s seminal book Competing Against Luck, he coins the idea "jobs to be done" – a way of framing what a consumer’s real drivers are for product or brand preference.
So, he argues, we don’t want a milkshake because we want a milkshake. We want a milkshake because we’re thirsty. A classic "you don’t want a quarter-inch drill, you want a quarter-inch hole" argument.
It would appear from Vaidyanathan's list of propositions that agencies the world over believe that they’re selling creativity, that it’s creativity that drives a client to approach an agency.
But if everyone sells the same thing, to varying degrees of subjective "goodness", it’s hardly surprising that agencies are seen as a commodity and that the pitch process remains as stubbornly resistant to change as ever.
"Change" is a key word here, because every client approaches an agency for change. A change in a key metric, an improvement in a metric put upon them by the business.
And that metric is very rarely "let’s be more creative".
Chris Jefford is a founding partner at Truant London