Ad Exec: Choose your winning strategy
by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) At the Olympics, not everyone is there to win gold. Some are overjoyed at the prospect of participation and indeed, for most, victory is always going to be a stretch too far. After a spate of recent new business pitches and endless hours of Rio 2016 highlights, I’ve wondered how many agencies (and brands) are truly playing to win, or simply happy at the prospect of competing. Even more so, the weight of the distinction between the two throws down some interesting strategic challenges for both.
What is winning in adland?
For most agencies, the pinnacle achievement — the local gold medal spot, if you would — is represented by an ‘Agency of the Year’ title. There are only a handful (probably less than 2% of the market) that will ever credibly be awarded this recognition and, even more so, itss likely to be reserved for a traditional agency format, such as the large network and independent agencies which you could name at the drop of a hat. Ultimately, a narrow view of victory and a game for the select few.
Success by a different name
Contrary to this, there is a proliferation of small, entrepreneurial hotshops (many spun off big agency talents) who want to create something really focused and dynamic of their own. Many start with aspirations for endless growth but settle comfortably into a consistent client base that affords owners and staff alike a decent lifestyle without the drama of 300 staff members and feverish competition for demanding blue-chip clients.
Looking at success through a different lens, there is an undeniable appeal to this existence that we can all relate to, given the complexity that comes with chasing the summit of the industry.
Casting an eye over to the work of brands, not every product needs to lead in innovation; not every product needs to be the cheapest or most accessible. There are plenty of ‘average’ products generating the enormous revenues that represent the middle of the market, which will be confirmed by one look through an old Yellow Pages or across the shelves of a hypermarket. The majority of brands out there are making decent money, despite not being, or even striving to be, the stereotypical ‘best’.
Choosing where to win
There are fundamental lessons here for both agencies and brands, derived from the choices upon which each is based at inception:
- If you want to trade the cheapest product, focus upon production and distribution efficiencies, removing unneccessary costs along the path to consumers
- If you want to win at selling a middle-of-the-road product or managing your lifestyle, offer good value and great, honest service.
- If you want to top the industry, embrace the challenge of investing a disproportionate amount of time and money in talent and innovation with a belief in disproportionate future returns.
What may seem like obvious strategies for business positioning often get muddied in the haste of everyday business and shifting sources of income. To ensure you don’t get caught working hard at the wrong things — and not competing at all — the choice of where you want to win must be made, and made early. Chasing gold in a pair of takkies isn’t going to get you there fast.
With a decade of local and international experience in leading brand consulting, design, shopper marketing and integrated advertising roles, Tom Fels (@thomasfels) has gained a deeply relevant understanding of the dynamics of agencies. His skills are put to work daily as group managing director of Publicis Machine. He contributes the monthly “Ad Exec” column to MarkLives.