Forget cobblers' children: how agencies market themselves now

Agency experts from Wunderman Thompson, Lucky Generals, St Luke's, Total Media & MSQ talk about how they advertise their superpowers

By ian darby

When it comes to marketing their own services it's not been an easy time for agencies. Reading the vagaries of the new-business runes became an almost thankless task in the wake of the pandemic, and the opportunity to build face-to-face chemistry is only just returning. After an upturn in pitch activity in 2021, the number of agency appointments made in the first six months of 2022 showed an overall decrease of 31 per cent compared with the first half of the previous year, according to figures from the AAR. But marketing of an agency is not just about getting on new business pitches.

Agencies that neglect their profile and fail to build a strong proposition and image in the market risk losing out on the best talent, at a time when creating a sense of belonging and potential to do great work is paramount. We asked agency experts how they bring themselves to market and whether agencies are getting more sophisticated in their own marketing?

Beyond considering the best way to pursue growth potential, agencies are facing other issues says Jess Gibbs, the CMO at St Luke’s - “the need to build an agency with a culture of personal transformation, collective ambition, and new adventures and aim to set the agenda with everything we do, from pitching to looking after our staff.” She contends that marketing saturation in UK advertising is reaching new levels, and that means a re-adjustment in the way in which agencies are pursuing success, requiring a shift towards a model based less on "the next big pitch" and more on having a “very clear positioning in the market– where clients (prospective and current) know we can solve big knotty strategic problems.

“Our super power is that we have a great agency process - intrinsic to St Luke’s culture is that everyone has a voice within our strategic process: from AE to ECD to share, learn, and feel invested in the work from the beginning. No post-rationalising, no last-minute panics – just a proven process that helps us build powerful brand worlds and shows our collaborative nature and therefore team chemistry. People on the inside need to understand and be behind an agency’s growth plan if it is ever going to take off. Culture and communication is everything.”

Meanwhile, agencies that neglect their profile and fail to build a strong proposition and image in the market risk losing out on the best talent at a time when creating a sense of belonging and potential to do great work is paramount.

Consequently, advertising businesses are becoming more sophisticated in their own marketing, appreciating the need to achieve standout in a complex and competitive market. We're seeing the top performers embrace content-led marketing, a laser-sharp new-business focus, and appreciation of the importance of sustainability and DE&I credentials in providing a competitive edge.

Vickie Ridley, chief marketing officer and client partner at Lucky Generals, says: "I think there is a great irony of our industry - we generate huge wealth for our clients, through the power of brand-building – and yet sometimes seem to not prioritise doing the same for our own businesses. Of course, there will be nuances and differences in approach to a lot of other sectors, but I think it is just as crucial to market an agency."

Matt Williams, global head of marketing at integrated group MSQ, says that this requires buy-in from the top table, from agency CEOs and the rest of the board, to ensure that marketing is not treated as a secondary option, or an afterthought. He adds: "You have to have a truth, everything you do is about telling a clear and honest story."

At Wunderman Thompson, Helen Lee, the head of new business and marketing, has responsibility for taking the agency's brand and proposition ("Part-creative agency, part-consultancy and part-technology company") to market, and driving growth for the agency. She says that that marketing and new business feed one other, and that the best marketing people understand the world of new business and have a growth mindset. “We talk to our clients about the importance of having a whole brand experience; a purpose which is consistent and distinct across every touchpoint. It’s the same for an agency brand. Know who you are and what you stand for. Keep the message clear. The industry is a noisy place; you’ve got to keep beating the drum to make noise. And show up in the right places. While your website and social are your shop windows, so are industry events, client events, awards, thought leadership and PR.

“Then half the battle is who’s telling the story. Get diverse talent representing your agency: While leadership has a very important job to do, I’m proud that so far this year 60 per cent of our PR ops have been from outside of our leadership, representing every department. This builds a picture of who you really are as a business.”

Vickie Ridley at Lucky Generals brings wider experience to the table in combining her marketing role with that of client partner on accounts including Yorkshire Tea and Virgin Atlantic. She leads a small marketing team but praises the impact of new business director, Fiona Bonar, and the agency's PR consultancy Wildstorm PR ("technically, they’re a separate company but we’ve been working with them for years and they sit in our office one day a week so we consider them family"). "Everything we do is designed to build the simple idea that Lucky Generals is 'a creative company for people on a mission," Ridley adds.

Marketing approaches can be many and varied, but MSQ's Matt Williams views content as a key part of the businesses' tool kit. Alongside Rajet Gamhiouen, the group's recently-appointed head of new business, he's focused on "doing fewer, bigger, things better". It's all about, he says, "creating content that intrigues people and generates the relationships." MSQ's celebration of the value that lies in "emotional capital" is a case in point.

The world of media agencies, if anything, is characterised by greater levels of commoditisation and competition than the ad agency landscape. Within this, Pedro Martins, chief growth officer at Total Media, has the task of achieving differentiation by concentrating on the business's strong positioning of behavioural science, plus making a virtue of its independence, in addition to its recently-acquired BCorp status. This latter recognition being a sign that sustainability and conviction-based credentials are becoming an important tool in agency marketing - and one that's effective in attracting like-minded clients.

For all these new business and growth experts, investment in marketing is delivering clear business benefits, in terms of providing the confidence, consistency and focus needed in how these agencies are pursuing growth.

That said, however, not one of these senior marketers is complacent about the future. As Helen Lee puts it: “The new business world is very tough. As more and more agencies say they can do more of the same thing, whether they all can or not is another question. Making sure your business is the one on everyone’s lips and lists is vital, particularly with more clients coming direct. I’ve literally had someone call reception with a brief.”

Pedro Martins agrees and adds: "I definitely see a lot of nervousness in the market. Looking forward, it will be about value. It always has been but, for us, there will be more about one-on-one what can we do specifically in a client category and their challenge. It becomes more important not to just shout about all the great things we've done, but what can we do for you as a client."

Ultimately, this involves demonstrating great value and "bang for buck" but a shrewd investment in marketing is propelling the best agencies through the door to make this argument.


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