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Why are agencies so insecure?

I’m sure we all have friends who choose the same dish every time they go to a curry house while another friend will try the thing they’ve never had before and live with the consequences. It’s funny how one person’s ‘risk’ is another’s ‘adventure’.

The foundations of a good curry night are pretty much universal aren’t they? The poppadum’s, the chutney, the Cobra, the sides we all like, and are ordered pretty much straight away, almost without thinking. Then we move on to the main dish. Some are done and dusted in the first wave of orders while others search for that elusive ‘dish of adventure’.

Feeling safe and secure is a fundamental human need and, more often than not, the way we navigate menus is based on this. Hence, we have expressions like ‘comfort zone’ and ‘comfort food’. The food that makes us feel most secure of all; of when we were young and being looked after by our parents. You can’t feel more secure than that.

But another human need is to grow and develop, to seek variety and thus enrich our lives: The polar opposite of feeling secure. Not surprisingly, the tension this creates and how we deal with it is one of life’s key lessons.

It’s pretty hard to get food wrong these days but what about situations where we are totally outside our comfort zone and have no or very limited past experiences to call upon?

The tapas format

Perhaps one of the reasons the tapas format has worked so well for restaurants is because it has made it easy to have that mini-adventure. To let go of what is known and certain, opening-up to a world of possibilities. The plates are small and easy to share, reducing the risk of failure and if you don’t like the dish you can order another very easily. Thus, providing the certainty we crave that we we’ll have a good meal.

At this time of year, we meet many agencies whose New Year’s resolution is to update their proposition and rewrite their narrative. They range from a simple tweak to something completely new. This week alone I’ve met a ‘new’ agency being formed from three existing ones, an agency looking to open in London and one wanting a market overview to help fine-tune their story for today’s context.

For all of them, there is the risk of change and moving out of their comfort zone. For some it is no more than choosing a different dish at the curry house but, for others, it’s deciding to eat somewhere totally new.

Insecurity slides

What they all have in common, however, is the inclusion of what we call the ‘insecurity slides’. These are the comfort food of agency credentials; their poppadum’s, chutneys, Cobra’s and side dishes, if you like. Faced with a blank page to be filled with something new it is, perhaps, unsurprising that we do the easy stuff first. ‘We were founded in and have this many people’ slide; the generic ‘we are an integrated, digitally savvy, full service, communications agency’ slide; the client logo slide, obviously; a map of the world, if you have one; that list of capabilities that screams ‘please pick one’ to a client, and there are plenty more.

Don’t get me wrong. They are needed, just like the chutney is needed, but you need to be watchful that they don’t distract from the main meal. Once the new material has been written, it’s very common to see the insecurity slides stay in the same place and break the flow of the new story. Worse is that they are so universal that we (and clients) predict the order in which they occur, making you sound very similar.

Agencies should be more like tapas: There to help clients take mini-adventures safely by managing the need to feel secure, with the need for variety to grow – be that as a person, as a business or, indeed, both. Agencies too often forget what their audience is really feeling because they are just trying to overcome their own, and that’s where we can help.

So, if you would like help in identifying your insecurity slides and how to focus on safe-adventure then come along to our next MasterClass.


Tony Spong and Robin Charney, AAR.

Who should attend?

Anyone involved in agency new business, and in particular, those reviewing their positioning to be ready for 2018.