Working on an issue such as the Agency Business Report inevitably gets me thinking about what truly makes an outstanding agency. Of course, it's a combination of attributes, from strong leadership to creative talent to loyal clients. However, the one trait that ties all of these things together is - apologies for being corny, but it's true - courage.
To truly stand out, agencies must be willing to take risks - in all areas of the business. For some firms, that means making a serious investment during one of the worst financial downturns in recent history because it's something that will pay dividends - literally and figuratively - down the line. That's something that several agencies did this past year, whether it was investing in training for staff, acquiring other firms with expertise in such areas as social media or government affairs, or hiring away talent from other professions and marketing disciplines by offering highly competitive salaries.
New business development is another area that demands this courageous approach. The past year saw a number of RFP processes that were simply ridiculous. In some cases more than 50 agencies were invited to respond to RFPs; in others, companies required firms to submit complete plans before the pitch, something that borders on intellectual property infringement. And there are some processes where the demands from procurement have made it nearly impossible for the project to be worth it.
It's not easy to turn down business opportunities when there are so few out there and client budgets have been drastically reduced. But those that had the foresight and courage to walk away are much better for it now that the economy has begun to pick up. Not conceding to ridiculous demands sends a message to both prospective clients and even staff that the agency won't back down from its principles.
But perhaps the place where this notion of courage most comes into play is with client relationships. Client service is not an easy thing. Sometimes agencies are expected to solve problems that are quite literally unsolvable. And other times they are called into a situation where the client, despite the knowledge about his own business, is asking for a strategy that just isn't going to work. The easy way out is to be a "yes" man, but the more courageous agency will stand up to the client and offer strategic advice and counsel, instead of just tactical execution.
As business has begun to pick up, it's important for agencies to learn from the lessons of the past year. And those that will thrive going forward will have learned how to take risks.
Erica Iacono is the executive editor of PRWeek. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.