Differentiation in an Ocean of Agencies

There are 66,113 U.S. business in advertising, PR, and related services in the U.S. according to the NAICS Association database. Ad agencies, creative agencies, media agencies, digital, PR, social, DTC, etc.

If you are one of them and find yourself talking to your prospects about how great your people are, the great relationships you have with vendors, the awards you’ve won, or how much you care about your clients’ businesses, you might as well save your breath and let them get back to work finding someone more unique than that.

In an ocean of competitive choices, you need much more than a promise of great people with great relationships that care about their clients and win awards. Try to find an agency that doesn’t claim to have all those things. Those claims are parity. You need to differentiate.

Competitive differentiation is tough in the agency landscape, which has incredibly low barriers to entry and therefore an ocean of alternatives to your own shop. It can be brutal simply to retain current clients, who are hounded daily by your competitors, with blue sky promises that might just catch your client in a moment of relationship weakness with your agency.

However, if you want to forcefully defend your current business and meaningfully grow your future business, then finding your competitive advantages are a necessity.

The top three challenges for succeeding in the strategic exercise of building competitive advantage are:

  1. Time. You and your people are busy meeting your current client needs and putting out fires.
  2. Perspective. You and your team probably spend far too little time (given the above) looking at your competitors’ unique offerings or thinking about how to map your services to where the world is heading.
  3. Skill. As we already established, you have great people that do great work, but those same people are very likely not visionaries of competitive advantage. That is a unique skillset that comes with deep industry experience and lots of practice in the craft of focused innovation. Building skill requires time and perspective to get the requisite practice, which are the first two challenges already noted.


If you want to identify your competitive advantage(s), in light of the challenges above, there are a few paths forward.

Hire. You could hire an innovator in the space with deep experience to come in and help you.

  • Pro: You’ll have a full time employee to keep a focus on this path as you forge into the future and as the competitive advantages you create inevitably become points of parity later, requiring new competitive advantages.
  • Con: There are not a lot of great candidates in this space, and they tend to be very expensive to keep on the roster.

Acquire. You could buy your way to innovation with targeted acquisitions and successful integration efforts.

  • Pro: The right acquisition can give you instant credibility and generate incremental interest from your clients and prospects.
  • Con: Buying a company can be expensive, and successfully pulling off an acquisition and capability integration is an artform of its own, making it risky without the right talent to oversee the entire process.

Outsource. You could pay a consultant to help you figure it out.

  • Pro: The consultant will have a track record for success and will be able to get you to your unique solution(s) without the annual FTE expense of a hire.
  • Con: You’ll need to refresh your competitive advantage on a regularly basis, likely every three years or so, which means you’ll need to go back to the well every now and again to maintain your long-term competitive advantage.


All three are viable paths forward. Most companies will find that option #3 is right for them given their business situation. Larger agencies that have been through a few rounds of substantial growth might then find it worthwhile to pull in their own full-time innovation talent. That talent might lead them to purposeful acquisitions to continue to grow.

The first step is deciding to start down the path of building your competitive advantage. It is an exciting and rewarding journey to take, and perhaps the only path for long-term survival.