Agencies are having a tough time of it, if all this year's state-of-the-union surveys are to be believed. Almost 90% of digital and design agencies believe their clients now expect more work for less money, according to the Design Industry Voices report, for instance, while over a third of marketing services companies have suffered a decline in sales, according to Plimsoll Analysis.
At the same time, however, over one in 10 agencies are making profit margins double the industry average (Plimsoll again), and over two-thirds of clients plan to increase their digital budgets for the new year (Econsultancy).
What can we make of these apparently confusing numbers? And what can agencies do to be on the right side of the budgetary equation?
You could say the numbers just show a healthy market in action. As a market matures, skills evolve and entrants proliferate, so clients get better at differentiating between agencies and services. Technologies and techniques develop, and a market-leading offering one year can be a minimum requirement the next. As clients become more demanding, agencies need to work harder to justify their fees. Clients may plan to spend more, but they naturally expect a bigger bang for their buck.
What then, can agencies - especially smaller, specialist ones - do to help ensure their survival in these interesting times?
Stick to what you're good at: Over the years we've been approached about diversifying into a range of disciplines (such as translation and video production) that are related to what we do without flowing directly from our core skills. We've always resisted the urge to pretend to do things we don't.
Diversify your services around your core skills: Where we have developed new services, there's always been a logical connection, an extension of what people need and expect from us. Our popular content audit service, for instance, has spawned a copy review service - a cheaper, quicker option for clients who want rapid practical feedback on their content rather than a more strategic, in-depth report.
Focus on client ROI: Although we provide creative services, we've never been precious about what we do. We're focused on helping our clients get better, ideally measurable, returns on their content. We're interested in client ROI, not winning awards.
Learn as you go: In the ever-moving world of digital, it's vital to allocate time for team members to develop their skills and knowledge. We recruit to fill gaps in our skills and knowledge too.
Be prepared to push back: The clients we do our best work for see us as trusted partners collaborating to achieve shared goals. They want our honest opinions, not just blanket agreement. In the interests of improving the work, we've never been afraid to question a decision, challenge a timeline or make a constructive suggestion.