Clients demand expertise, so why don’t we offer it?

28 Jun 2017

Posted by Robin Bonn

Scattershot new-business hurts agencies, but if demonstrating genuine expertise is the antidote, why is that so hard to do?   

Everybody and their mum is banging-on about how screwed agencies are. We certainly have self-inflicted wounds. Are we dying? Maybe. The shit’s certainly flying in from all angles.

In recent times, we’ve had the Drum’s barely concealed ‘WTF?’ over the “surprising” and “puzzling” decisions of client CMOs joining DDB and MullenLowe. Mark Ritson’s added his contempt for content marketing’s claim to be new.

Even agencies joined in. Salmon’s Hugh Fletcher acknowledged client concerns about the “limited commercial understanding and blue-sky bullshit of agencies”. And ex-Goodby Silverstein & Partners strategist Andy Grayson made a compelling plea about wasted talent.

We’re doomed… DOOOOMED, I tell you!

New-business: our favourite time to shoot ourselves in the foot

Sadly, this stench of death comes from our own bullet-riddled feet. Our refusal to focus has made new-business the very worst of us, instead of the best.

Agencies are mostly indistinguishable. Many have countless claimed ‘specialisms’ and a generic non-proposition (“no, no, we’re about ‘creative business results’, they’re about ‘business results – creatively”).

As new specialists mix with ever-expanding generalists, sharp elbows and land-grab dominate, fuelled by bullshit claims of new expertise.

The value of expertise

Imagine you need a doctor. Your back hurts like hell and the GP’s no help. You know nothing about spines. So you’re terrified and need a specialist, stat.

But finding one’s hard because you don’t really know what’s wrong.

Fortunately, every day you get 50 emails from doctors listing spines halfway down page three of their ‘specialisms’. So you start meeting with ten of the least oily.

Clearly you’ve got pretty poor odds of unearthing the expertise you need.

And there it is again. The ‘E’ word. Expertise.

This is what clients pay us for. But we’re terminally unable to define it. In particular, we refuse to admit what we’re not good at.

New-business powered by belief

New-business can be the catalyst for change – but only if we evolve beyond me-too best practice for punting our wares.

It’s time to define your agency’s entire customer experience, ensuring it’s powered by a genuine passion that informs what you do, not just what you say.

With a core belief – not just a pithy strap-line – deepening your expertise is as easy as indulging a hobby. Your people can’t imagine working anywhere else. You’re running a ‘movement’ not an agency. Thought leadership flows from everyone.

More to the point, you become polarising – not right for many, indispensable for some. You stand out. You say ‘no’ with confidence. You shift the balance of power. You win more – often without a pitch – and get paid a premium.

This isn’t an idealistic pipe-dream. It’s what other sectors do. Sure, it’s easier for founders, but doable for anyone. So in our under-fire sea of sameness, are you part of the problem or the solution?

Robin Bonn is the founder of Co:definery - a New-Business management consultancy. You can reach him on

(image: Productive Flourishing)

Robin Bonn
Posted by Robin Bonn

Robin is a member of the BIMA MarComms Council and the Founder of Co:definery, a management consultancy specialising in helping agency CEOs reinvent how they approach growth. Unusually, he’s spent his whole career in growth roles – and never fallen out of love with it. Even more unusually, he’s plied his trade across a whole bunch of disciplines, from service design and creative technology, through editorial content and video production, to CRM and consultancy. Along the way, he’s succeeded – and ballsed it up – at start-ups, global networks and independents gearing up to sell. He’s led winning pitches for the likes of Skype, Eurostar, Fujitsu, Experian, Spotify, P&G, ITV, Microsoft, Facebook and Ford, to name a few. And he’s pretty sure he’s won more than he’s lost. Robin is a former member of the IPA’s New Business Group and Direct Marketing Association’s Agencies’ Council and an alumni of author and former IPG Chief Growth Officer Kevin Allen’s ‘Hidden Agenda’ program. He’s also a mentor – or ‘man-bassador’ – for SheSays, an organisation helping women rise to the top of the creative industries, and a columnist for Marketing Week. Having been hired a bajillion times to tear-up new-business and start again, he launched Co:definery when he realised that agencies really are their own worst enemies. They claim to do everything, despite clients seeing straight past the jazz-hands. And they keep applying generic so-called ‘best practice’, wondering why they always get what they always got.

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