Fair Exchange: Depth vs breadth — the integrated agency challenge
by Erna George (@) When I mentor students, I often warn them about the rush to success, stating that they need to craft their journey with some consideration to breadth and depth. The same concept of breadth vs depth applies to integrated vs specialist agencies.
For students on the client side, a level of depth is critical as it allows you to learn the rules of the game properly so you may apply them when moving on to gain more breadth of experience. In the same way as the journey will be different for each marketer, the same applies to agencies; each route has its pros and cons.
While I am open to integrated agencies, I am cautious. Why?
- There are few integrated agencies that truly hit the mark, and
- Without enough depth in each field, being an integrated agency is not feasible in my view. While depth without breadth may lead to a myopic view, breadth without depth may lead to a diluted and ineffective offering.
When providing a full-service offering, sometimes the experience for a client is seamless while, at other times, the gaps are not only apparent but damaging to relationships. When a lead or integrated agency team delivers TVC-style content for digital and is surprised when it lacks engagement or asks its clients in frustration why its big display idea will not be not permitted in-store, this sometimes indicates an in-house team too removed from this environment.
I’m not suggesting that agencies mustn’t push boundaries or seek new paths, but challenges must be done in a mindful and relevant way — with full understanding of the retail or digital environments and processes. The same could apply to teams that have concentrated largely in certain categories, eg asking a creative team that for years has developed brilliant thinking and activation within financial services to shift gear and execute an activation for an FMCG product in the shopper environment may not be feasible overnight. It takes time and focus to develop the array of skills necessary across disciplines that deliver quality offer and service to clients and strong ROI. An approach which dabbles leads to a client experience that is lacking. Do you want to be remembered as the partner that delivered great work, even if in one area, or jack-of-all trades, master of none?
Each aspect of the communication and consumer/shopper-connection journey requires specialised skill and knowledge, as well as focusing on the future trends in each to stay ahead of the curve. Imagining that BTL skills may easily translate ATL without consideration and learning is impractical — instantly I imagine a costing that has not taken into account all the key elements. At the very least, the approach to, and project management in, digital vs shopper vs radio are different, with diverse contacts and timeline realities. Without processes, creative and planning being aligned to the various settings, focal areas could be watered down and executional excellence compromised.
For example, treat a tactical volume-driving activity with the same process as a new thematic TV commercial, and sales may be tanking before you get the activity in market. Finding a compelling creative idea is fantastic but, unless it is expressed and executed within each of the relevant channels with the right message and tactics, it will not deliver.
I realise that, as a client, some may say that I am overstepping but my experience back on the client-side has shown me both the outstanding and the mediocre — having sat on both client and agency sides for an almost equal length of time, I do see both sides’ challenges and opportunities. Overall, I know that agency teams want brands to be successful and intent is not at question at all; everyone wants successful outcomes. However, I also sometimes challenge agencies that I meet with, which are looking to broaden their focus, to stick to their knitting or showcase their model, as the cost to both of delays, inefficiencies or getting it wrong is too high.
New revenue streams critical
I understand that, as the world of media and marketing becomes highly fragmented and moves at crazy pace, that unlocking new streams of revenue is critical (especially with shrinking budget realities). I also have no problem working with one team as this can bring efficiencies, but of primary importance is the skill within each of the relevant areas. As a client, I need specialists; there is no time to guide through the process. Different agency models are emerging in the shift to integration in thinking and behaviour, whether it be existing agencies increasing skills by hiring a spectrum specialists to cover areas or agencies developing separate business units under one roof. Then there are the smaller startups that have a core creative team sitting in creative hubs where they can outsource strategy or digital to key partners, which helps achieve specialisation while managing the cost base.
As I do sit on client side, judging how each operates is not my mandate; I’m interested in the integrated solutions possibilities, whether via single agency or multi-agency team, and I’m excited by the prospect of change and reaching new heights. Dedicated specialists or skills, each equally valued, working together to develop more-effective campaigns, engaging brilliantly across all touchpoints — these will unlock new partnerships and prospects.
With the increased focus on deliverables, a traditional approach will no longer work for clients or agencies. Straying too far from the agency core proposition or experience focus, like a brand that is desperate, will result in a lack-lustre offer without clarity on what the value proposition or point of difference is — integration is becoming a new normal. Similarly, expanding into new areas without demonstrating the plan and asking existing or new clients to trust you is likely to put relationships and reputation under strain.
- Stay niche and offer brilliance in your core area unless you can offer full-quality service in integrated areas
- To be of value to clients across a wide offer, depth with each area is critical — respect the nuances of each skill area and build or buy expertise in the areas you want to famous for
- Let’s try new ways together; there may be valuable lessons and benefits all-round.
After starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.