Survival of the Fittest Agencies

160 years ago, 24th November 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species*.

Let’s remind ourselves of his blockbusting new concept – it was the idea that there is a gradual evolution of species through natural selection. It was a seminal work and the foundation of what has become known as evolutionary biology.

Darwin proposed that the species (read agency population) needs to adapt to the changing environment. If there were ever a changing environment, then it would be the business environment that agencies inhabit today, which includes:

  • Prices being driven down by increasingly price-sensitive and competition-aware clients
  • Commoditisation of most services
  • A new and endless supply of cheaper, me-too, copycat offerings from low-wage economies or business models
  • The growth of apps and AI and countless other solutions
  • Consultancies buying marketing agencies, marketing agencies buying digital agencies
  • The power of the platforms and yet the rate of change of new platforms presenting differing ways of working eg Google vs Facebook vs Bing vs Amazon
  • The whole digital transformation and e-commerce shift
  • Political, economic, social, technological, legislative and environmental pressures…


A version of Darwin’s survival of the fittest in the face of environmental pressure is very much in evidence in the agency world. Darwin put together a series of facts and inferences (Original Source: Ernest Mayr, 1982) which I have adjusted:

  • A struggle for survival ensues because every agency can grow but there is a limited supply of clients and staff (fact)
  • Individual agencies do vary significantly from one another (fact)
  • Individual agencies less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to flourish; individual agencies more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and flourish, which produces the process of natural selection (inference)
  • And finally, this results in populations changing to adapt to their environments, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species (inference).


So, we can apply Darwin’s natural selection to our world:

  1. Every agency can grow: they have the ambition, drive and passion. Because of a limited supply of relevant and appropriate clients and staff, some agencies will underperform or even fail (fact).
  2. Although agencies appear similar from the outside, the reality is that they are all very different: different business models, aspirations, cultures, strategies, financial models, operating processes and systems, platforms, tactics, management systems and so on (fact).
  3. Agencies less suited to the environment are more likely to fail; agencies more suited to the environment are more likely to succeed (inference).
  4. Finally, new models of the agency will emerge to adapt to the changing environment (inference).

Darwin nailed it back in 1859.

So, looking at your agency today,

  • How are you adapting to the outside world?
  • Are you adapting better than your competitors?
  • Or are you struggling to keep up?
  • What do you need to do to survive?
  • Are you fit enough to survive?
  • In fact, will you be one of the survivors? Or not?
  • What makes you think that?