Portrait of an Industry: Marketing Agencies in 2020

Andy Kerns

By Andy Kerns

With a new national census due this year, we thought it fitting to conduct a similar profile of the marketing industry, to which thousands of agencies and many more thousands of employees belong. We include in this group a broad spectrum of participants—not just classic ad and branding agencies, but also those focused on PR, web design, SEO, social media and many other related disciplines.

Over two months at the beginning of this year, we analyzed more than 6,000 agency listings in the US, looking at a number of defining characteristics. Our intent is to take account, to stir debate, to explore that which may seem trivial to others but we know is not, and to have some fun with our fellow marketers.

We begin with some fundamental statistics, looking at agency size, age, services offered and hourly rates.

Gender and leadership

One subject we were highly curious about is the prevalence of female leaders in the marketing industry, particularly on the agency side. To give some context, here are some recent numbers reflecting the status of female leaders in the business world at-large:

For our report, we analyzed a sample of 550 agencies based in the US, looking at two numbers representative of gender distribution:

Most Senior – What’s the gender of the single person most senior in the organization? Typically a CEO, President, Founder or the like.

Ratio at the Highest Level – What’s the gender ratio at the highest level of leadership in the organization? This was typically measured from the band of executives who best represent “upper management.” Typically included C-suite, EVPs and VPs, partners or the like.

At 83 percent of the agencies we sampled, the most senior person is male. While that’s far from an ideal balance, it reflects progress relative to the 4.8 percent of female CEOs in the Fortune 500. If you’re looking for examples of female leadership and representation, small and medium-sized businesses are far outpacing the corporate world.

Looking beyond singular leaders, to groups that would colloquially be called “upper management,” we found a continued predominance of men. Perhaps most severe: 31 percent of the agencies we sampled had no women in upper management, while only two percent had no men.

Hero Images

Many outside our industry may not have a taste for the specificity of this portion of our analysis, but so many of us know the significance of a strong first impression when a visitor arrives at a company’s website. In this case, we cataloged the most common choices for hero images atop agency home pages. Five main categories materialized:

-People
-Places
-Things
-Text/logo
-Portfolio work

As for the two percent we classified as “Other”—these were images and renderings that truly defied categorization. To name a few: an illustrated astronaut sitting on a couch in someone’s living room, a little girl watering a desktop computer with a watering can, and cyborg-like robot walking across a bridge. We did our best, these just didn’t fit.

Flair and Taglines

Finally, we wanted to have some fun, looking both at flair added to agency names, and separately, at some of the most head-scratching taglines in the industry.

First the flair—in this case we define flair as decorative words chosen to supplement essential words that identify the nature of the business. For example, if an agency is called Black Tie Advertising, the words “black” and “tie” are considered flair, whereas “advertising” is a more essential building block.

And finally, the taglines. Our gift to you, free of charge. In theory, such delicious bursts of wordplay are intended to attract prospects, quickly and deftly plugging people into the ethos of a brand. While we salute the effort on each and every one of these, we just can’t believe what people were thinking.

Methodology

We analyzed a directory of more than 6,000 agency listings in the US, containing the following elements of information in each agency profile:

-Number of employees
-Year founded
-Hourly rate (range)
-City and state of headquarters (or single office)
-About Us summary
-Tagline
-Services offered 

Gender and Leadership Analysis

For analysis of gender in the top position, the selection was straightforward. We looked for a signifying title (often CEO, President, Founder, etc.) and confirmed them as the foremost featured person on a website or LinkedIn. In the event there was no clear distinction between two or more leaders (co-founders, perhaps), if the gender was the same we counted that gender once, if it was split, we removed the sample.

For analysis of gender at the highest level of leadership, the process was a bit more complex and at times subjective. Some companies have a clear C-suite, others have a President with a handful of SVPs below him/her, a small percentage have a board of directors, and many feature small, varying and sometimes eccentric org charts.

For the portion of companies analyzed where the story was clear, we conducted straight counts of gender and represented those as ratios. When it was less clear, we made judgments to the best of our ability about what constitutes “upper management” and where the line should be drawn. For example, if there was a small agency of 12 people, featuring one “Founder” and 11 people who were associate or junior level, we would count that as one person in upper management. Conversely, at another agency, with 75 employees and only eight of them displayed on the website, we would count all eight as being in upper management, regardless of title. In short, we took a wide variety of cues from how each individual company represents its team on its website and LinkedIn.

Hero Image Analysis

Using the same sample as for gender, we logged the first displayed image at the top of the home page for each of 550 websites. In cases where a video auto-played, we logged the first image shown in the video and then noted the existence of a video rather than a still image.

There were two areas that required some subjective judgment—distinguishing between stock photos and actual photos of a team and office, and distinguishing between portfolio work and the company’s own brand collateral. In 95 percent of cases, it was an easy call. For the remaining five percent, we believe any errors were adequately absorbed and cancel each other out.

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