It’s been three years since the Association of National Advertisers identified competition from consultancies as the number one trend (and challenge) in the ad agency business. The “surge of suits” raiding the creative realm continues to expand, with four consultancies (Accenture Interactive, Deloitte Digital, IBM iX, and PwC Digital Services) now ranking among the world’s largest “ad agencies.”

While most of the competitive energy is focusing on acquisition or aggregation of resources and service offerings, creative agencies may be over-emphasizing what to offer and overlooking why clients are turning to consultancies in the first place.

A casual glance at the industry suggests the source of the problem: consultants are seen as problem-solving business thinkers, while agencies cultivate an image as artists. Consulting firms sell themselves as leading thinkers, looking outward and investing heavily in the research, forums, and content that are useful to their clients and prospects. Agencies sell their creative product, looking inward and investing heavily in award shows and portfolio-centric websites, with rarely a nod to a serious blog.

Of course, casual glances seldom give a complete picture, and industry generalizations are of limited utility. To get more specific input, we reached out to one large and one mid-size agency, along with a noted consultant to smaller advertising firms, to see if (and how) creative agencies can compete as thought leaders. There was more commitment to the approach than anticipated (or frequently found), and four key considerations emerged:

It can no longer be just about “the work”

Stop by the average agency website and the first thing you are greeted with is “the work,” the sacred text and iconography of agency output. Their latest spots. The best awards. In short, it’s all about the agency (versus thought leadership — or even simple content marketing — which is all about your customers, prospects, and what’s useful to them).

We asked Kate Newman, Chief Marketing Officer of long-time global leader Leo Burnett, if agencies should try to compete with consultancies by emphasizing their business thinking (via thought leadership marketing) instead of, or at least alongside, their creative work. She said, “Business leadership is the cost of entry for any player — agency or consultant — for a seat at the table with brands. How can clients buy a creative idea without a business assessment and strategy? Clients don’t buy creative campaigns. They buy solutions to business problems. If consultants and agencies aren’t already working like this today, I guarantee they won’t be here in five years.”

According to Newman, part of Leo Burnett’s plan for ensuring they are here for much more than another five years is “a program for sharing thought leadership. But, unlike consultants, our focus has always been on adding value to our existing clients versus recruiting new ones. Our program focuses on leveraging the best thinking from across our global network and sharing it in a way that’s timely, digestible, and shareable.  It is also more about interactions than written words. We’ve embedded teams from Adobe, Google, and Facebook into our offices to give employees and clients always-on-access to the latest thinking. Reading thought leadership articles is helpful only to a degree. Nothing beats learning face-to-face from the most innovative companies in the world.”

Agencies need a self-image shift

When asked the above question, Mark Carlson, Chief Strategy Officer for Laughlin Constable (a mid-size agency based in Chicago and Milwaukee), rejected the agency versus consultant premise outright. “I am a consultant,” he fired back.

“Client partners hire my agency to help them solve a problem or capitalize on an opportunity,” Carlson continued. “I consult with them on their current situation, together we dig into competitive offerings and find points of distinction. We discuss what we know and don’t know, and we offer methods and ways of filling information gaps. We consult on ways of unearthing real connection to our target audiences, and we offer up the latest fusing of creativity and technology to intercept and change thinking. Together, we use data to drive strategy, direct creative, iterate messaging, measure progress and map new opportunities. Frankly, I don’t know how agencies can be true collaborative partners without being consultants on business dynamics, category context, and bottom-line impact.”

He said that, to support and communicate that approach, “We utilize many outlets to share our thought leadership. We actively seek out and participate in speaking engagements among industry leaders in both the agency space and among our client verticals. We have a very active social and content outreach plan that is committed to showing how we can drive thinking across a wide spectrum of topics to a wide variety of audiences. We invest considerable time designing and presenting original research on key topics – some of our most current eBooks have dealt with content marketing, the impact of millennial attitudes on healthcare marketing, and a deep dive on Gen Z, the latest challenge to marketers.

Laughlin Constable also hosts two Round Table events each year. We carefully select topics that are top of mind for both our client partners and prospects, and always feature original thinking from our agency experts, as well as a slate of external subject matter experts to provide well-rounded perspective on the topic at hand.”

Smart agencies identify specific expertise, and aren’t afraid to share it

We also spoke to Michael Gass, a popular growth consultant for smaller ad agencies, and he pointed to one that is succeeding by identifying specific areas of expertise and developing industry-leading content around it.

In the case of Lehigh Mining and Navigation (yes, an ad agency), a niche arising out of the founder’s passion for music, and proximity to the client, led to winning the Martin Guitar account, and gaining credibility among music brands. But rather than expand a musical client base by adding music-marketing information to a general agency blog, Lehigh created its own content platform just for this niche, an offsite blog called “Sound Marketing.”

Gass says, “The niche blog lives offsite, thus allowing a greater focus to a particular target audience than most agencies would be willing to do. This positioning created the appeal and opportunity for the agency to land Peavey, a national account well outside their geographical market – and to do it without a pitch or an RFP.”

The entire agency needs to own thought leadership

All three interviewees agreed on one last point – that thought leadership is ideally an agency-wide pursuit, starting at the top. As Gass put it, “Prospects are looking for expertise. Building a positioning of expertise around the agency owner(s) is key.” Newman added that, at Burnett, “agency leaders set the vision for our thought leadership agenda, and everyone – from C-level execs to junior strategists – contribute their ideas and experiences.” And Carlson said, “Thought leadership is a shared responsibility among many of us at Laughlin Constable. We develop opportunities for our senior leaders to weigh in on important matters to our community and our client partners.”

These are just a handful of examples – but, if the creative ad agency business is to survive the onslaught of consultancies and their considerable head start in thought leadership, then these efforts and more will need to become the industry norm.

Cover image: Calum MacAulay