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Dear Commercial Acuman... What do the best agencies do differently to outperform as a business?

Dear Commercial Acuman... What do the best agencies do differently to outperform as a business?
IPA research shows that a key difference between the best-performing agencies and the weakest is owning the commercial challenge; top agencies are more than twice as likely to own the commercial challenge as the weakest.

Moreover, top agencies are significantly less likely to shift the blame for their commercial performance onto clients’ procurement departments; like Olympic swimmers, they know that getting wet is just something they need to do.

Beyond this, here are 10 things that top-performing agencies do better:

1)    Walk The Walk

Top agencies have no complacency and no delusion, their CEOs own the challenge and set the culture from the top.

2)    Position, Position, Position

Top agencies have a realistic understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. They focus on differentiation and their value proposition.

3)    Partners, Not Servants

Top agencies work with clients to achieve objectives, not as suppliers to do stuff. They focus on thinking strategically more than doing executionally, avoiding the temptation to be constantly busy. They get into the C-suite and stay there, knowing that you get passed to whomever you sound like.

4)    Talent Management

Top agencies recruit for the agency they want to be, becoming employers of choice, not just sweating the assets. They are very selective in their hiring and retain the best with more than just pay. They also have a replacement strategy and keep warm contacts with interesting outsiders.

5)    Commercial business

Top agencies are run by commercially confident entrepreneurs rather than practitioners; they make considered business decisions based on sound commercial principles, not emotional reactions. Supremely self-confident, they are not afraid to challenge procurement or to talk to clients about rates.

6)    Knowing the numbers

Top performers know their key numbers, identifying the key issues and addressing them boldly. They track a small range of key, forward-facing metrics covering both Effectiveness and Efficiency, such as revenue visibility, client satisfaction, net promoter, utilisation and staff cost ratio. They avoid the temptation to tweak minor issues, over-analyse the past or think that running faster is a business strategy.

7)    Growing Clients

Top performers grow their existing clients, not just their client list. They adopt a fewer, bigger, deeper approach, treating all clients as prospects. They have more senior contacts, more strategic input and a plan for each client. Top performers are prepared to cull clients if they prove to be unprofitable, demotivating or just scrappy. They avoid overreliance on any one client and keep trophy clients to a very limited proportion.

8)    Winning Without Pitching

Top agencies derail the pitch process whenever possible to shift the odds in their favour. They are selective about what pitches they take on and they know the key success factors for winning. They are as selective about their clients as about their talent and take a strategic approach to selecting clients, what type of work they do and dealing with decision makers rather than gate-keepers. As with talent, they have replacement strategies in place for all their clients.

9)    Change Is Hard

Top performers are resilient, they do what’s right, not what’s easy and know while change is hard, it’s nowhere near as painful as getting stuck in the wrong place. They also know that their greatest competition comes from disruptors on quality, not on fee levels.

10)    Be Strategic

Top performers focus on mission-critical issues for their clients where they can make a real business impact and where the budget is harder for clients to cut. They get the right calibre of talent to have the right conversations with the right people client-side.


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The IPA’s Business Growth Conference will reveal and discuss the right commercial behaviours you need to deliver business success. Book your tickets here. Join the coversation on social media #IPACommercial.

IPA Commercial Behaviour Survey
If you have not yet completed the IPA’s Commercial Behaviours Survey, contact completion, you will receive an assessment of how your agency compares with top performers within 2 weeks.

For more on pricing agency services, winning without pitching and better commercial negotiations, check out these videos from last year’s event:

Last updated 16/05/2017

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