‘True agency change is a rollercoaster’ – Neil Davidson in The Guardian

Agencies always have to be ready for change, be prepared for the ups and downs.

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The agency world is full of people talking about the need to grasp the nettle of change or face the consequences. It’s probably true that change is a must, particularly in these turbulent times.  However, it’s important to face some other truths about change.  Fundamental change is expensive, time consuming, and scary.  It’s also easy for people to avoid, while pretending to be on board.  Any true change initiative in an agency is a rollercoaster ride but it’s a roller-coaster ride where you forgot when you got on and you’re never quite sure when you’re going to get off.

It’s time to change.

If that assessment of how real change feels has got you thinking twice you still need to keep going. Agencies have been in the perfect storm for years – a broken payment model, new competition from other sectors, clients wanting change, increased levels of client dissatisfaction and the transformations due to digital and social.  The big question is how you decide on the right changes, and make them stick.

Our agency faced all the classic industry challenges, but it would have been easy to ignore. The usual top-line indicators were relatively positive but we knew that our competitors were already struggling due to external factors.  We also had some of the common weaknesses:

  • Making money in execution and giving away intellectual value and property.
  • Incremental income from this way of working overall, rather than direct client fees.
  • Too many small budget clients creating a long-tail of unprofitable work.

Our biggest question was ‘change to what?’ This meant considering some fundamentals:

  • Did we have the right proposition?
  • Were we delivering in the right specialisms?
  • Were our ways of working right for a new world?
  • Did we have the right people to deliver these?

After answering these questions we needed a plan to deliver against these and invest time and money in making it happen.

Learning from the rollercoaster.

We talked to clients, change consultants, insight experts, research experts, behavioural economists and neuroscientists. Each had a different perspective, but of course there were many pieces to building a new agency.

Almost three years later we’ve put a lot of the right changes in place – a new name, new proposition, new specialisms, a new way of working, new people and new clients. It was harder than we expected, but the rewards were far greater too.

We learnt some truths about change as well:

  • It’s easier to launch a start-up than change an existing agency. Start-ups begin with a blank page, you know your colleagues are behind you and there’s nothing to muddy your vision, apart from the inconvenient challenge of paying the bills in the early days. All of these can be compromised with an existing agency. It’s a bit like doing a full service on your car while driving on the M1.
  • You need to talk to everyone who has a meaningful point of view, then decide for yourself. Talking it through lots of times has its own benefits, no matter the answers, and the more chats you have the more chance of getting some good advice.
  • You have to find your one compelling reason for change, and constantly remind people of it.
  • Plan for two to three years ahead. You always have to deal with the usual day to day challenges of running a business but you need to set a vision for the medium term, and keep that in sight.
  • Expect the outcomes to be different from the original ones you’d planned. One reason is because stuff happens. However, more importantly it’s because your original plan might be replaced by better learnings and experience along the way, mainly because it wasn’t as good as you thought it was when you came up with it.
  • Most people don’t naturally want change, even if they say they do. Put in place ‘change roadblocks’ in your ways of working that stop people avoiding embracing the change. For us the strongest two were a workshop-focused process and a new creative brief that demanded thinking about a challenge from the perspective of our three questions approach.

Enjoy the ride.

Like most businesses we are still looking at what the EU referendum vote means for us in a constantly changing situation, but thankfully the last three years mean we are more ready for this than we ever have been. Not only do agencies have to change, they also always have to be ready for change.

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