Everybody’s darling? The agency dilemma.

How can I successfully engage with clients without overstretching? How can I stick to my capabilities without opening doors to competitors?
Hans-Ulrich von Freyberg

There is still much good advice to be found for agency management from David Ogilvy. One is to never leave the room without asking for the business. Certainly, this is not a bad rule if you want your agency to be healthy and thrive. Still, combine it with the newer commandments of 360° offerings and clients demanding – or agencies thinking they’re demanding – full service. Then, add to this all the new fields which have come to enlarge the agency realm over the last two decades, from SEO to NFTs. As a result, agency leaders are often stuck with a conundrum: How can I successfully engage with clients without overstretching? How can I stick to my capabilities without opening doors to competitors?

The threat here is to belly-land in the slippery intent to be everybody’s darling for anything an agency can be asked to do. At our agency, Cocomore, we have been facing this dilemma. It was not enough of a solution to focus on our core competency which is digital experience. That is still a large field, spanning diverse capabilities, ranging from Social Media or customer data to e-commerce or the metaverse. In addition, at Cocomore, we see ourselves as co-entrepreneurs of our clients. This attitude commands long-term and close client relationships. It takes longstanding teams of diverse competencies and deep knowledge of clients and their business. So, what could we do about an attractive potential client asking for an isolated, however interesting project? And how about an existing client wanting to migrate to a new web technology we had not worked with yet?

Escaping the dilemma

One option in such cases is to just say no, even when it’s enticing business. It is a painful option. It hurts the agency that has interiorized David Ogilvy’s advice quoted above. It also hurts the rejected client who needs to search for another agency.  Still, “no” can be the best response and at Cocomore we do say it from time to time. However, we increasingly avoid the painful “no”. We discovered that there is an innovative way out of the dilemma.

It‘s not freelancing. We do, of course, work with freelancers as most agencies do. But that’s limited to specific tasks with a fixed time horizon. We keep this  to a small fraction of our overall effort. Otherwise, it would become too complicated, expensive and risk-fraught (think false self-employment). Still, our escape from the “everybody’s darling” dilemma is related to the human cloud, that is to the growing crowd of highly qualified independent contractors. We take advantage of them through so-called virtual companies, in short “Vicos”, provided on the Vicoland platform. These Vicos are teams – legally spoken they are consortia – of independent contractors. We subcontract to Vicos full projects or larger parts of projects that otherwise we could not do.

Vicoland allows us to keep whatever stake in the action we want to. Sometimes, we present to the client a Vico we have chosen for them together with the specialists from the Vicoland Consulting Service (experienced agency professionals). In these cases, we can then take a more active or passive role, as we please. Sometimes we choose a Vico and fit their work into a larger piece we deliver to the client.

Even with Vicos, we are still not everybody’s darling. There might be no Vico available short notice for something specific at some moment (although the number of Vicos keeps growing, roughly 300 by now). Also, there are projects we don’t want to get into even with a Vico. Still, Vicoland has allowed us to build meaningful relationships with half a dozen clients which otherwise we could not serve.  And it has made us more agile and flexible in being co-entrepreneurs for our core clients.

It is good practice for any publication to state when it is related to the subject matter of a content piece. This also goes for our Cocomore blog: Vicoland was developed by Cocomore. It leverages the insight that we cannot be everybody’s darling but that turning down requests is not great business either. Therefore, we did two and a half years of UX and software development work with a team of 20. Lots of organizational, legal and financial tech was needed so that Vicos can be subcontractors as if they were real companies (but without any overhead). We then added the Vicoland Consulting Service as human experts to make sure working with Vicos is successful. Vicoland is now a team of 35 in Europe and the US. And we didn’t do all this just for Cocomore.  Cocomore was only the guinea pig. The guinea pig – fortunately – is more alive and kicking than ever. And it is happy not to be alone anymore: a dozen fellow agencies now also benefit from Vicoland.

 

 

About Hans-Ulrich von Freyberg

After holding various positions at Bertelsmann, Hans founded Cocomore in 2000. For Hans, entrepreneurship means above all continuity through constant change and lasting core values. Hans studied economics and classical philology. In addition to corporate development, he is actively involved in agency projects and in Cocomore’s start-up incubation. Hans likes to relax by reading, playing cards or doing sports.