Multiple agencies can build a brand — but don’t expect them to hold hands while doing it
I once worked in at agency that served several major brands, but wasn’t the agency of record (AOR) for any of them. Instead, we worked on what used to be called “below the line” work. One afternoon, an Account Director breathlessly rushed in to a room where some of the creatives were meeting. “GSD&M screwed up the brand radio campaign!” she exclaimed. “So we may get a crack at it!”
That memory popped into my head when I read recently that a marketing executive at Sainsbury’s, a British grocer, said in an interview, “I don’t think anyone believes you can have one agency that does everything, but neither can clients in my position manage 10 to 15 different agencies. What we need is for agencies to work together.”
So why can’t multiple agencies play well in the proverbial brand sandbox? Are marketers trying to abdicate responsibility for managing the shops they hire?
Some agencies accept their place on a client’s pecking order and follow their marching orders. Many don’t. In the latter case, these shops always angle for more work or higher-profile assignments even if it’s in a medium or category that’s outside their expertise. And no secondary agency will turn down work that the client offers or gets a crack at when the AOR screws up.
Why? It’s very simple. Everyone wants to grow their share of the pie. And for the most part, it’s a zero-sum game. More work for one agency means less for the others.
Oddly, this principle even applies when multiple agencies that service an account are owned by the same holding company. Since each agency operates with its own P&L structure and its own personnel, they’re forced to scramble for their share of the same client marketing budget.
The oddities don’t stop there. Think about it: If the AOR loses part of the business to a secondary agency owned by the same holding company, that AOR will likely lay off employees. Those employees won’t automatically shift over to a secondary agency even if they all work for the same parent holding company. But the costs of layoffs, new hires, and everything else involved in transferring business affect the holding company’s overall finances. Does that make much sense? I don’t think so. But that’s life in a zero-sum agency world.
Yes, it’s a bit of a mess. And the clients who decided to parcel out their business in pieces need to take responsibility. It is absolutely incumbent upon the client to coordinate the communication. Too much proprietary knowledge and ego is at stake for agencies to coordinate amongst themselves.
Someone has to make sure the parts are working together correctly. If I renovate my house, it’s not enough for me to hire a roofer, electrician, and plumber, then tell them to work together and figure it all out. (And to make this a more apt metaphor, the plumber would want to do some electrical wiring on the side to boost his income).
If you’re a CMO who can command a mid six-figure salary and have multiple agencies do your bidding, then you can afford a few assistants who can juggle the hairball you created.
Why? Because it’s simply the nature of the business: Creative firms want to do everything they can to put their own stamp of creativity onto a brand, no matter how small a role they play. And believe me, many secondary agencies don’t take too kindly to adhering to a formulaic “brand standards guide” cooked up by a solitary lead agency or branding firm. They’ll look for ways around the guidelines if they think a good idea warrants it. If it’s simply an off-brand, bad idea, the client is the one who needs to enforce the rules.
No, juggling multiple agencies is not easy. Like everything else in marketing these days, it’s complicated. But with open communication, and true leaders guiding the way, marketers can make sure their agencies play well together.
Any marketer who can’t manage that is simply burying their head in the sand.
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 website, see his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.
And please, buy his book for 99 cents.