I recently bought a new laptop (HP Spectre 13 for any interested, and yes, the keyboard really is as good as the reviews say). On seeing it, a group of designers and developers remarked that it looked like a copy of Macbook or a Macbook Air.
When I asked them what about it looked like that, given that it's not made of silvery aluminium, doesn't sport a prominent Apple logo, has shiny bronze-gold and fairly unique hinges, their argument became that it was thin and had chamfered edges where they'd otherwise be sharp.
This is what I call the fallacy of the necessary, and it's something I see increasingly in the agency space. However, to explain why I thought I'd unpack some context first.
Make It So
There's a wonderful story that comes out of the space race. During the late 70's and into the 80's, both Russia and the US were working on a re-usable spacecraft that could take payloads into orbit and return. Both hit on the idea of what would become the Space Shuttle (the Russian version of which was called the STS Buran), and both came up with their own designs.
When unveiled however, many remarked that it appeared that the Russians had copied the American design.
However, whilst they do bear superficial similarities, the reasons for this weren't someone at OKB-1 cribbing off the American designs. Instead, it's to do with the laws of physics.
To allow for a glide-based re-entry (which was the simplest solution), the machines needed wings, and given their size, those wings would have to be fairly large. This would lead one to conclude that a design like Concorde, with a pointy nose might be appropriate. In this case though, it would be a fatal mistake.
Because of the incredible speeds the machine was designed to re-entry the atmosphere at, a pointy nose would have caused the wings to buckle and fall apart. The shockwave created at the nose, with a pointed end, would have impacted the wings. By contrast, a blunted nose made for a wider shockwave, which would miss the wings entirely.
Similarly, the rockets are at the back, although with very different configurations, there's a central tail and so on. The machines look similar, because the laws of physics and aerodynamic design, combined with the intended purpose of both craft forced them to look similar.
Beyond the Surface
The simple answer (copying) was, as is often the case, wrong. Too often things in a mature market are derided as all looking the same (the differences between most ultrabooks, smartphones etc), but there is little alternative because they have to. A Galaxy S7 looks a lot like an iPhone, which both look a lot like any other modern smartphone, because there's only so much you can do to design something that's a slab of glass with a battery, board and chips behind it, while trying to pack everything in as tightly as possible.
The rules of ergonomics and physics dictate that smartphones have very similar form factors. Similarly, any high end laptop will have the same user considerations. To have very different designs requires an ability to ask different things of the user. Cars, for example, can be vastly different. A sports car looks different from a 4x4, which looks different from a saloon or an estate. However, almost all lorries conform to basic pattern, as they're all optimised for solving the same problem.
The Business USP
The same is true for agencies in their own fields. They all exist to solve very similar problems for their clients. As a result, it can be easy to look at the landscape and see a sea of companies, all looking the same. That's not their fault though, more it's a necessary result of the market.
I'd argue that it's better for agencies to compete long term based on things beyond the work. Instead, compete on values, on personality, on character. Are you an agency that wants to work with brands experimenting with technology on the cutting edge? Are you a more traditional company, at home with a more old fashioned style?
Be true to your vision of what you want your company to be, and the people you want to work with. Let the things beyond the surface be what defines you, in this age where everything looks the same. Let every experience that people have with your company reflect that. The office where you work, the website they interact with, the blog posts they read, the business card you give. Everything should reflect that central character.
Don't be yet another in a sea of many; be one out of one.
If you liked this post, you should follow me on Twitter