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From service providers to partners: how agencies can compete for new business

By Anne Carter / April 17, 2019

Once considered not creative enough, consulting firms are making big moves in the agency space. With Accenture’s recent acquisition of Droga5, consultants are demonstrating they’re serious about creativity and agencies are starting to take note.

As more firms like Deloitte and PwC acquire their own creative shops, marketing agencies have their work cut out for them when it comes to securing new business. While still a fairly new phenomenon, consulting firms are already making their presence known in the marketing space. When looking at revenue in 2017, half of the top 10 marketing businesses were technically consultancies.

If agencies want to remain legitimate contenders, they’ll need to expand their service offerings and show how marketing investments are proven drivers of business growth. Forget the fancy proposals, colorful pitch decks and portfolios of past work. Agencies need to demonstrate how their work impacts the bottomline and address any knowledge gaps keeping them from contributing to business growth.

With consultancies increasingly find success in the marketing space, agencies will need to evolve their business model, combining data with creativity, to win and retain their clients.

Say good-bye to the “yes man”

Clients don’t pay consultants to be agreeable; they hire consultants to challenge the status quo and provide objective recommendations.

On the other hand, agencies tend to fall back on the saying “the client is always right.” But for agencies, being a “yes man” can diminish their value as a partner and lead clients to doubt an agency’s ability to be an effective consultant.

Agencies, like consultants, are hired for their expertise and ability to bring fresh eyes to a stale problem. They get brought on to evaluate every possible scenario, bring new insights and opportunities to the table and think of ways to stay on top of industry trends. And sometimes this means knowing when to challenge a client’s way of thinking and proposing recommendations that connect marketing performance to business performance.

Award-winning agency Wieden + Kennedy, for example, has enjoyed years of creative success by remaining frank with its clients. And while it’s rumored their bluntness lost the agency business, the agency’s willingness to push clients to take risks has generated buzz-worthy campaigns like Bud Light’s “Dilly Dilly” and Nike’s “Dream Crazy” ads.

Listen to access the bigger picture

As clients move away from traditional RFPs and pitch processes grow shorter, agencies must prepare to tell clients what they need the minute they walk through the door.

But marketers can find themselves at a disadvantage when competing with consulting firms, armed with big budgets and access to big data. So to level the playing field, agencies are leveraging social data to learn as much as they can about prospective clients and their respective industries.

Think of social media as an affordable focus group compared to traditional qualitative research methods. No longer constrained by location or price, agencies can discover valuable brand intelligence in a fraction of the time it would take with a focus group. And to scale those efforts further, agencies are leveraging tools like social listening to find the information they need on demand.

Similar to how consulting firms use analytics software to table ineffective strategies, agencies can also use listening data to validate their recommendations in future pitches. Listening data is also gathered in real-time, meaning agencies can ensure their proposals are up to date and tailored to a client’s audience, giving marketers a leg up over consultancies. With deep consumer insights, agencies can better tailor their strategies to resonate with consumers and bring brands closer to their target market.

Think beyond the original scope of work

There are great opportunities to provide data-backed evidence to prove to clients why a pitch is worth investing in—but agencies sell themselves short by focusing on one problem at a time. Meanwhile, consultancies like Accenture are already looking beyond the initial project scope and thinking about how they can help clients innovate in other areas of business.

Instead of limiting a pitch to the original problem at hand, agencies should consider where else they can add value for their clients. Brands don’t just want one-off tactics to execute anymore; they want solutions that drive digital transformations and support a business’ long-term revenue goals. Listening data enables agencies to go beyond a single campaign and influence other aspects of the customer experience—and even other brand initiatives like recruitment and quality control.

Suppose a client asks an agency to figure out why a social campaign is performing poorly. With social listening, that agency might discover the campaign’s performance is closely tied to a bigger issue related to subpar customer service. Using this data, an agency can offer a solution that both improves a brand’s service and strengthens the performance of their social campaign. The result is a win-win for the agency: they fixed the initial ask for the client and surfaced a previously unknown problem that was preventing business growth.

Insights gleaned from social listening provide agencies with an opportunity to provide a recommendation outside of the original scope of work that adds value to the client. When marketers can walk into the room and provide recommendations to a problem clients didn’t even think of, it reinforces the belief that they are the right agency for the job.

Move from service provider to solution advisor

I once heard someone say, “selling won’t help, but helping will sell.” And it’s true. In the face of increased competition, agencies need to diversify their services to help clients achieve their business goals.

Investing the time to get to know the ins and outs of your client’s business will pay off in the long run. Clients will increasingly favor the agency that acts like a trusted advisor, has a brand’s best interests at heart and can be counted on to provide thoughtful solutions. Agencies have always brought the creative firepower, but to compete against emerging consultancies, they’ll need to pair their creativity with business acumen to gain the competitive edge.

Anne Carter

Anne Carter

Anne Carter is a Senior Manager of the Agency Customer Success team at Sprout Social. She is an experienced marketer and customer success leader committed to empowering her team to deliver the best in class customer experience. Outside of work Anne is a food and wine enthusiast, you can find her in the West Loop checking out the latest restaurants, running, doing Pilates and traveling.
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