It’s probably the question I get asked most.
I hear it everywhere, from conversations with friends and family, to chats with potential clients. I was once told anecdotally that there are over 70,000 “agencies” out there. So, it’s a fair question, I’ll admit. Given my dry sense of humor, I also find it pretty ironic that one of the things we work so hard to deliver to our clients – differentiation – is probably the single greatest challenge we face, not only at Digital Surgeons, but all marketing, advertising, and strategic consultancies in the market.
Let’s take a look around.
Design and innovation firms: Ideo, Fjord, Frog, WhatIf
Consultancies: Deloitte Digital, PWC, Accenture
The “big 5” and all of their subsidiaries: WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, Interpublic, and Dentsu… AKQA, BBDO, McCann, Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Martin, etc.
Digital agencies: R/GA, Razorfish, Big Spaceship, Blitz
Advertising agencies: TBWA Chiat Day, Droga5
Integrated agencies: W+K, Havas
Creative agencies: Arnold, FCB, Mother
Design agencies: Huge, FI, Firstborn
Branding agencies: Pentagram
Social agencies: Vayner Media
Media agencies: Carat, MediaMath, Horizon, Quantcast
Boutiques: Anomaly, 72andSunny, Basic, Petrol
Bespoke whitelabels: Mistress
PR agencies: Edelman, Weber Shandwick, Siren, Bold
Shopper agencies: Mars, Saatchi X, IN
Promo agencies: Match, Epsilon, Integer
Not to mention the thousands of smaller, regional agencies that operate across all these categories.
And, we haven’t even gotten to subsets like interactive, experiential, production, development, search, analytics, etc. You could quite quickly fill all 53 roster spots for all 32 NFL teams with top-tier agencies. All possessing all-star leadership, talent, clients, service-offerings, and work. Therein lies part of the trouble with differentiation. When you dive in, so much of the service and work, irrespective of company “classification,” seems to overlap. I see it firsthand having competed with all of the above listed at one time or another. I’d bet you see it too. Capabilities presentations blur together. Agency-speak, acronyms, and buzzwords take prominence on whiteboards. Process and “proprietary” frameworks all start to feel like the same labyrinth with no exit.
If you dive into what we’re all saying you don’t get much relief. From “a human-centered design agency that pioneers,” to “an ideas and innovation company that exists to create the future with our clients,” it’s all wonderful, but doesn’t really give much context or additional insight into what the company is really all about, or how it’s really different from competitors.
I promise you I’m not speaking from a high horse here. Digital Surgeons has struggled through the same challenges. Developing single-page summaries of our “core” offerings, for example, isn't easy. We’ve evolved our messaging from “Experiences build relationships, relationships build brands,” to “Forward Obsessed,” to “We Design Demand.” We’ve adopted design thinking methodologies. We’ve developed our own version of agile workflow. We’ve created engagement teams and work-pods. We’ve hired people from a range of diverse backgrounds to add different perspectives. We’re not the cheapest, nor the most expensive….Still kind of sounds similar to what you’ve heard in other pitches and conversations, doesn’t it?
So, what the hell actually makes us different?
Nothing tangible. There, I said it. The industry secret is out like the masked magician revealing all his trade craft.
The truth is agencies are living, breathing organisms. Like snowflakes made from the same molecules, no two are the same. And, ultimately how we’re different is how you perceive us to be different – how the interactions feel with us versus other agencies, and how our teams align. It’s not about our industry focus (or lack thereof). It’s not about our physical footprint (everything is done remote these days anyway). And, it’s definitely not about the services we all offer that have been so highly commoditized over recent years.
For us that starts with our people. We have all the titles you’d find anywhere else, but the people behind them are rare. We have PhDs in Classics from Yale as content strategists, gamers as user experience designers, dance choreographers as account directors, and musicians as developers working in harmony. We have people from all over the globe, from California to North Carolina all the way to Turkey, Uzbekistan, and England. Myself, I left a successful legal career to apply my logic and business background to our consultancy practice. Those things aren’t necessarily unique in their own right, but how they come together within our walls and how they merge together are entirely unique and different.
Who’s the last agency you hired that dug as deeply into your 10-K as they did your share reports? Before discussing what we can do, we always evaluate why we’re doing it, and aren’t afraid to push back when something seems off. We don’t focus on specific verticals, pigeonhole ourselves to menus of services, or work off a rigid process because that’s not how your objectives are achieved. We don’t campaign for campaign sake. We don’t build a Bentley when a Benz will do. We don’t push Digital Transformation, if it’s more important to drive short-term demand generation.
We pass on business. Lots of it. We’re privately owned and debt-free. We only choose to focus our time (and team) on relationships where there is a mutual exchange of value and respect. In other words, we're partner-led. Everything we do is with our blood, sweat, tears, heart, and soul. And, if we don’t believe we can be all-in, we’ll politely suggest that you find another agency.
It's not about coming up with the latest innovations or most creative designs. It’s business first and foremost. The sustained health and future growth of your business, to be exact. Without you, we don’t exist. And ultimately, no amount of creative awards will keep the doors open if we’re not providing you with the solutions to expand your top line and increase your margins.
Marketing, advertising, innovation, and sales are just tools. Together we are much more.
If this didn’t help you understand us, perhaps a quick conversation would.