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August 26, 2010
Can One Agency Really Do It All for a Client?
The media world is fragmented, but some agencies want all the pieces

I recently saw an Adweek blurb that spotlighted a TV commercial from an agency well-known for digital work. The spot was nothing earth-shattering, just a promotional spot for a contest. Yet the Adweek writer was pondering the deeper meaning of the spot -- specifically, whether a digitally focused agency like that could “add a compelling body of work in narrative messaging.”
That’s just a fancy way of asking, “Can one agency really do everything well?”
It’s a good question, because lines are getting blurred all over the marketing and advertising world. Traditional agencies are hiring digital people. Digital agencies are hiring traditional people. PR firms are hiring art directors, and everyone’s hiring social media people and web developers. (That is, if they’re hiring at all.) All across the industry, firms are grabbing as many pieces of the marketing pie as they can.

However, there are real problems underlying all of this jockeying. Do agencies need to offer everything under one roof? Can they do it effectively? Is there any profit in trying to do it all?
Whether they’re part of a holding company or independent, a firm of hundreds or a handful, the “agency of record” or just one of many roster shops, firms all across advertising and marketing are scrambling to deliver whatever tactics clients need. Forget the endless debates about whether agencies of one kind or another are “ready to lead.” It’s about whether they’re ready to serve.
Theoretically, of course, one agency can do it all, but think about how it actually works. You need a budget or an assignment or an idea to get started, then a kickoff meeting with everyone in the room. Then a brief -- a what? A creative brief? An engagement strategy? A list of tactics? Someone has to make those calls. And you’d better hope there are people in the agency, preferably all of them, who know how all the pieces integrate -- they all need to understand social, broadcast, and user experience, and SEO. Plus, a PR strategy needs to be in place for seeding and publicizing the work when it’s ready to be launched. Someone has to manage the process, corral the creative elements, get the client’s hundreds of approvals on everything, and make sure it all gets produced correctly. Oh yeah, the agency has to make money on this when it’s done.
I leave it to you to answer how many shops can do all of the above -- in some semblance of order, without regular staff and process meltdowns, and with brilliance reflected in the produced work. It's no wonder so many agency brains are feeling scrambled these days.
However, this type of integration is happening. Clients are demanding it, and agencies are hell-bent on providing it. The blurring of the lines is a good thing for some. Right now, recruiters and hiring managers are looking for people with both traditional and interactive experience. As advertisements morph into content into apps into social into one-to-one marketing, we all need to get versatile or get gone.
As for me, I think I’ve been somewhat lucky in that regard. I’ve written everything from television commercials and print ads to websites and even one-to-one sales materials for my clients. I didn’t set out to become some sort of “generalist.” My versatility came naturally: I simply did the work that the client needed at the time, and it wasn’t always a print ad or TV spot. But there’s no question I like writing certain things more than others.
Agencies act much the same way. They all have a certain sweet spot, or a type of work that’s in their heritage: digital, TV, print, promotions, B2B, direct mail or direct response, shopper marketing, jingles, whatever. But they’re staffing to handle it all, and as a consequence, many agencies are a mile wide and an inch deep.
How can you tell when an ad agency really can’t deliver all the goods? It’s not easy to detect.
Here’s one suggestion. Listen for a line like this: “We begin with the idea. We’re media neutral.” More often than not, it’s bull. Because here’s the truth: Agencies operate to make money, and they’ll pursue only those ideas and tactics that they can make money on.
It doesn’t matter whether agencies mark up media or production, bill by the hour, or sign a retainer agreement. In the end, no matter how good an idea is, when you blow it out into unprofitable tactics, a lot of it won’t get produced. I’m no billing expert, but I get the impression that there might not be much money to be made in the endless stream of traditional and interactive tactics I see these days. If that’s the case, our industry is in big trouble.
Of course, many clients aren’t buying the all-in-one agency idea. They parcel out assignments across a bunch of agencies, some of whom may be specialized. But like the example cited by Adweek, all agencies see a spot on a client roster as a chance to grab more and prove themselves worthy.
Clients need a strong guiding hand to manage several agencies with competing agendas, and not many clients have that steadiness. Look for more agencies to grab pieces of the pie they can’t swallow.
Whether all the competition and chaos is good, well, I suppose it depends on your perspective. So many people needed, so much action going on. Perhaps we can think of it as a big orgy. Some folks are having a great time, but others are tired of getting screwed.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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