Are you buying or selling?

15 Sep 2022

Every year on the first or second weekend of August, the village of Kalloni on the island of Lesbos holds a huge sardine festival lasting for three days.

During the festival, the fishermen bring the fish to the village port and offer it fried and for free to tourists and locals, along with an ouzo or two. Greek music is played and the locals, along with the tourists, have a great time.

So many sardines arrive for the festival that they can afford to give them away for free because the locals and tourists can’t possibly eat all that is landed. Shortly afterwards, they begin the process of salting and canning them to preserve the fish for when there are none to catch. You can buy a tin for just under 7 euros.

With the current debate about pitching, could it be that agencies giving ideas away for free is analogous to the fisherman of Kalloni? What was purely a local festival has turned into something that attracts the tourists (clients) in large numbers. How many of them go on to buy the salted tins of sardines, I wonder?

Markets, be they for sardines or other goods and services, are greatly affected by the ebb and flow of supply and demand. Think of house prices driven ever upwards by high demand but a lack of supply.

As any business owner knows, understanding the dynamics of the market you are in is a key factor in developing any strategy for growth. Today, oversupply can arrive rapidly and for some sectors five players is too many while in others it can cope with over 2,000.

As a market matures and growth slows many businesses turn to price promotion to maintain sales. Giving away ideas for free is our industry’s equivalent of a price promotion; more ‘get one free and then buy one’ than BOGOF. But this is easily copied and, slowly but surely, this promotional tactic becomes firmly embedded. 

Often described as the ‘spiral of doom’, where selling more of what we ‘make’ is the main driver of growth rather than looking to maintain and grow value. The spiral of doom typically ends in a price war in an effort to retain market share, which reduces margin, which reduces the ability to invest in creating differentiation, which means that you risk…well, you know.

There has been a growing trend among agencies to move to output-based pricing in an effort to protect this value, but it does take time to make this change and understandably the pressure on growth through volume of sales is still front and centre.

Indeed, I’ve spoken to many agencies this year with ‘ambitious growth plans’ keen to explore all channels in the search of new clients. When many of these enquiries come from the same part of the market, one is alerted to the fact that we may be entering the tipping point of over supply v demand, which then runs the risk of being the first rung of the spiral of doom – if ladders can be spiral! 

Many admit that the reason for these ‘ambitious plans’ is to get their EBITDA number up to a level that makes them attractive to buy. Mergers and acquisitions help take supply out of the market, helping to maintain margins by reducing costs that can be invested in innovation to grow value. 

Two very active sectors right now are performance media/digital marketing and content creators, where we have reached the tipping point of supply exceeding demand. We are seeing mergers and acquisitions in the former while technology that automates many of the processes involved in adapting and distributing content is driving the latter.

To compound matters further we are entering a period of inflation, especially where talent is concerned, so prices are probably going to have to start going up for many agencies. For those where there is already an oversupply in the market it leaves very little room for manoeuvre.

Understanding the dynamics of markets in general and the one you are in are essential. Ambitious growth plans, therefore, can feel a bit, well, ambitious.

About The Author

TS #1

Tony Spong

Lead Consultant, Brand Strategy

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