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Creating a strong future for your agency

It continues to be a challenging time. Most of you have been through the phases of organising home working, forecasting cash, planning resources, furloughing staff, staying close to clients, worrying about new business and being concerned for your people. And even though you’re probably feeling more comfortable with managing these challenges, the outlook is still very uncertain.

Some of you are holding your breath waiting for things to get back to normal. Others are expecting a ‘new-normal’ that will require a little bit of adjustment. But for most agencies their world will alter significantly.

The future will certainly be different with far more significant change that any of us at Tonic can remember from our time in agencies battling economic downturns. The differences will be bigger, more important and longer lasting. Think revolution not evolution and fundamental change rather than refinement.

However successful you’ve been in the past; you won’t have an automatic right to thrive in the future. Some agencies will come out very well, most won’t, many won’t survive. This isn’t a false alarm.

There is now a critical challenge to understand how the environment will change and how you can adapt to find your new place in the world. It won’t be easy to deliver true value for clients, employees and agency owners and this will feel like a real threat for a lot of agencies. But it will be a great opportunity for others. So, whatever you’re focusing on today, it’s never too early to be working on how you can become an agency fit for the future.


History has shown that crises can significantly reshape beliefs and behaviours. New social policies, ways of working, marketplace dynamics and customer needs have all been fuelled by major disruptions. The Second World War, 9/11 and the SARS virus have all played their part in influencing the world as we’ve known it. And Covid-19 will similarly drive change. And all that’s apart from the financial pressures brought about by the deep recession we’re facing now.

But the pressures are more fundamental than just this crisis. The agency world has been at a tipping point for many years. Originality and creativity have been fading, client connections weakening, employee commitment waning and profitability shrinking. Many agencies have become too elaborate, rigid and predictable. The door has been left open for newer types of competitors and they’ve fared very well.

If you’re an agency that has managed to stay fresh and ahead of these problems, your preparations for the future may be easier than others – but no less important. You’ll certainly need to adapt to maintain your momentum.

But if you recognise any of these symptoms in your business, you’ll need to be thinking and changing more radically. And if you do this properly it could be just what your agency has needed for some time – and set you up for years to come.


It’s time to act now, don’t get stuck in a day to day head down routine. Others are already looking to the future and will be moving ahead. Even if you aren’t able to change things quickly, a clearer view of your future will ensure that all your current actions are aligned to take you to a more relevant place.

We’re going into a new world where expectations from all your audiences will be different, and the standards you’ll need to achieve will be much higher. Whether looking at results for clients, progression for employees or performance measures in your business, things will be different – and not easier.

All this probably feels like a huge task and, indeed, there are lots of issues to be considered. But it really helps if you have a clear process to follow to avoid being overcome by too many different challenges or ideas at the same time.

Start by working out what you think the new expectations will be for your stakeholders – and what standards will be required of you to meet those expectations. Don’t start with your business today and look for incremental improvements otherwise you’ll never engage with the bigger picture. Just sharpening up your processes and cutting some costs won’t get you to where you’ll need to be.

We’ve done a lot of work on understanding expectations and defining the new standards for success and we know it’s not easy. You’ll need to look beyond the nice words being bandied about to look deeply at the implications for what needs to be done. You can then assess the gaps in your business today, identify opportunities and set a plan for change.

And do think about your business in an integrated way, finding the best balance to match the new expectations for clients, talent and business value.


The stagnation in agency sharpness and effectiveness has been felt by many clients for some time. We’ve all seen the increase in pitching, switching, multiple agencies and in-housing as clients have searched for people who can really deliver clever, joined-up solutions. And during the locked down period, they’ll have been exposed to even more agency offerings. They’ll have seen new ideas and found better ways of getting good things done. All creating new expectations for the future.

Agencies will need to be sure the services they offer can genuinely provide the expertise and significant value clients are seeking. Or drop them or re-package them so they do. There will be more focus on smart thinking and creativity than on just ‘doing’. And you’ll need to take the padding out of your processes to deliver to clients quickly, easily and less expensively.

Relationships and financial rewards can still be mutually beneficial, but your clients will need to be chosen very carefully – to match your true expertise and profitability requirements. The clients you need may not be the ones you’ve had in the past or worked closely with during this crisis. And to engage the clients you really want for the future, your positioning and communications will need to become simpler, more focused and more meaningful. There will need to be less hype and gloss – more clarity and honesty.


Attitudes and expectations towards work were already changing quickly before the pandemic arrived. The demand for greater choice, flexibility and meaning was already challenging traditional approaches and putting pressure on leaders to do things in different ways. Recent experiences have only served to deepen these desires. People - whether employees, freelancers or contractors - now want to be invested emotionally and financially in the businesses they work with. And, of course, the most talented people will have the greatest choice of where they work.

With clients insisting on only working with the very best, attracting and retaining talent will be more important than ever before. And to maintain motivation, productivity and profitability you’ll need to think radically about new approaches to roles, structures, recognition, remuneration, progression and empowerment.

You’ll also be challenged to define your purpose and beliefs and embed them in your everyday work culture. The Covid experiences will have set new expectations and leaders shouldn’t expect their spirit and culture to return to what it was. These things will need to be completely renewed based on a new vision for the future.

Many new demands will fall on leaders and leadership teams who must now become more skilful and more consistent than they’ve ever been in the past.


With profit margins and cash generation already under pressure, Covid-19 will only have made things more difficult for many agencies. But becoming a resilient, sustainable business for the long term is vital for all stakeholders – owners, employees, partners and clients.

Different business structures and models will need to be considered to provide high levels of profitability. Agencies with low profit margins trying to grow their way to better results will have learned the hard way in recent months.

They’ll need to be greater focus on business quality, management and risk, with more attention being given to aspects such as client mix, IP, management information, succession and protection.

And with the list of potential purchasers already much reduced, if you were looking for an exit in the shorter term that cash is likely to be even further away. But dreams of easy growth and big sale values have never been realistic. The optimum strategy has always been to build the best business you can and keep your value options open. It’s just that the new standards of value will be a bit different.

Don’t be daunted by having 2020 as a new base year for your new track record, with the right changes the next few years could be significantly better than you would ever have achieved with your ‘old’ business.


To emerge from this period as an agency with a strong future will be no ordinary task. Bold, fresh thinking and a rigorous process are vital. It’s not about guess work, nor about waiting to see how things shape up. You’ll need to understand the expectations of the marketplaces in which you’ll be competing, decide how you can meet the new standards and act to transform your game.

If you aren’t clear why the world will need your agency - you’d better get moving. If you’re already on your way to a good place, keep going. It’s not for the feint hearted, but if you don’t embrace the challenge you might just fade away. Make sure you’re ready for the new world.

These are the perspectives and ideas we presented recently at one of Propeller Group’s Recovery Sessions where we pledged our time to help agency leaders on the road to recovery. We hope these perspectives have helped that journey.

If you’d like to talk further on this subject and how we could help you, or on any other issues affecting your future business success, we’re available and more than happy to talk. Please get in touch.


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