Despite extolling the virtues of brand positioning to clients, many agencies fail to properly develop their own brands.

It’s a classic story of the shoemaker’s children who wear no shoes—a tired proverb, to be sure, but perennially appropriate.

But, we never hear how those children turned out. Did they grow up plagued by chronic foot problems? Did they become adults whom you could dress up but never take out?

Or, is it possible they turned out OK?

Maybe they didn’t end up with Harvard MBAs and high-paying jobs in finance like the well-shod kids next door. Maybe despite that, they learned to be happy and prosperous anyway!

To be clear, I will always advocate for a specialist over a generalist approach to proactively grow an ad agency. Generalists seek out clients; specialists are sought after. Generalists are forced to differentiate based on price; specialists can afford to charge a premium. Generalists will always be tempted to reinvent themselves to suit the nature of the prospect; specialists will find it easier to home in on a consistent message that’s always effective for the right audience.

When it comes to business development, generalists are inefficient; specialists are efficient.

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Still, the idea of specializing brings out some serious fear-of-missing-out. I get it — conceptually it’s terrifying to think of cutting yourself off from hundreds of potential clients.

But here’s another terrifying thought to consider—inefficiency is not cheap. Pitching new clients is expensive.

On average, small to midsized agencies spend $450,000 a year preparing for pitch meetings. That’s according to a study conducted in late 2015 by consumer insights firm CubeYou. These agencies reported that they pitch about 10 new clients a year and the average investment per final pitch meeting, in real and third-party costs, was $45,000 (and that’s not including the cost at the RFP stage, which was $15,000 per RFP).

Maybe these numbers will scare you into taking a more specialist approach – a “this is your brain on drugs” tough love maneuver.

But my hunch is the shift is more likely to come slowly.

I’ve met too many agency CEOs, especially of small to mid-sized agencies, who find specialization such a hurdle (mentally, emotionally and operationally) that they end up not doing anything at all.

Rather than let those agencies languish, I’ve started developing alternative methods to at least help them raise their profiles and pursue clients in a consistent, sustainable way. Often this results in their coming around and eventually embracing a differentiated positioning, though it may take months or years.

For you agencies closer to the generalist end of the specialist-generalist axis, I have some advice. 

Don't look at it as a stark choice between one side or the other; think of it as shifting the cost-to-benefit ratio more in your favor.

Here are some ways to experiment:

  • Narrow your client selection criteria a bit. If you work with clients across several categories, can you find commonalities in your solutions? Or, can you identify unhealthy patterns that could be reversed with a slightly more exclusive checklist? Make sure your criteria are qualities you can identify from the start. I recently saw “pays on time” listed as a criterion. That’s hard to determine before you convert the prospect into a client —and then it’s too late.
  • Experiment with a targeted prospecting campaign. Narrow your message to a strategic list of 10-20 prospects. What was the result? Was it easier to manage? Was your success rate higher?
  • Demonstrate your thought leadership. Michael Gass, who specializes in social media strategies for agency new business teams, has some great advice in this area. He recommends a niche blog that exists completely separately from your agency website —at least to start.
  • Start somewhere: See what it feels like being a full-service agency with a growing specialty in travel and tourism, or a digital agency that specializes in mobile advertising platforms.

I rarely hear of an agency going out of business because it didn’t specialize (admittedly this based purely on my own experience—if you have a different experience, I would love to hear from you).

I think there are hundreds of agencies out there that manage to get by, do good work and keep clients and employees happy enough to stick around. Sure, they may fall prey to taking on business that isn’t really what they want but, it helps them make payroll.

Then there are those agencies that are worn out by struggling and striving and are ready to try something new. These agencies should at least consider where they lie on the generalist-specialist axis and what might be gained by nudging themselves a little further into the upper right-hand quadrant.