Stephen Whyte: the mind-frazzling task of choosing an agency when everyone says they can ‘do digital’

Fifteen years ago, the business of selecting a roster of agencies was a relatively straightforward process. A client would need an advertising agency, a media agency and partners to help them with PR, promotions, direct marketing and perhaps design. In almost every case, these agencies would be appointed on an ongoing, retained basis and everyone concerned could then crack on with the marketing and communications tasks at hand.

Nowadays, that approach seems as old fashioned as a telex machine and as quaint an idea as a 90-second TV commercial.

The marketing industry has grown to be a much more complex, ever-changing and confusing world. The demands and opportunities of digital have prompted the old guard agencies to evolve as much as they’re able, leaving clients with the task of assessing whether they really are able to provide the new services they claim to or whether they need a roster of digital agencies too. The number and variety of digital shops is mind-boggling with most being relatively small businesses. And, at the other end of the spectrum, the dramatic increase in the importance of both data and technology has resulted in less familiar but very influential entrants to the marketing director’s world.
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Oh, and if anyone thinks they have begun to understand the landscape as it exists today, the pace of change and the volume of acquisitions inevitably mean that it’s certain to look different tomorrow.

Despite that fact, it’s possible to categorise agencies in a way that will be relevant for some time to come and that helps to make more sense of the options available. In my view, there are five broad categories.

Firstly, there are the ‘traditional agencies’ that have evolved and diversified to varying degrees over the last ten years. There are advertising agencies offering to do all things digital, PR agencies that have become social media and content marketing experts and media agencies that now offer creative and technology services. Some deliver these new offerings convincingly; others less so.

Secondly, there are ‘full-service digital agencies’. These are the ones offering everything from web design and build to search, mobile, online media buying, social media, user experience design, email marketing, content marketing and online advertising services. These one-stop digital shops would, if asked, probably be happy to step into the traditional media world too and, among their digital peers, are the ones most likely to have some retained client business. Perhaps surprisingly though, there are relatively few of these agencies of any real scale and almost all of the big players are owned by WPP, Publicis or one of the other networks.

Thirdly, the ‘digital specialists’; the ones that service one particular area. There are quite literally hundreds and hundreds of these in the UK, most independent and most relatively small. The vast majority of these businesses have had little choice but to work on a short-term, project basis and few have developed the strategic and relationship management capabilities of a long-term partner. Some of these have started to broaden their offering in an attempt to develop stickier relationships with clients and to increase their growth rates.

Next up are the ‘who cares about the D-word?’ agencies. These post-modernists focus on brand ideas and customer engagement across all media, channels and platforms and, rather refreshingly, this newer breed tend to champion creativity above capabilities. But most are uncertain of how to label themselves. The most obvious generic descriptor, ‘advertising’, is fraught with limitations and negative connotations but more modern language can be pretty ambiguous. Amusingly, several of these agencies avoid the issue altogether and just present their work in the hope that the people will take the time to decode it.

The fifth and final group is the ‘market re-inventors’. Significant players from outside the agency world that have been seduced by big, international accounts and made highly relevant by the importance of technology, data-driven marketing or even off-shoring. Accenture and Deloitte top the bill in this group and their ambition, credibility and influence among major clients should not be underestimated.

The challenge a marketer faces in selecting a roster of agencies from this smorgasborg is enough to make most sob, hit the bottle or both. Particularly when you think that there has never been a greater level of scrutiny placed on marketing’s success and return on investment.

Perhaps the fear of making bolder, less obvious and higher-risk appointments explains the ‘better the devil you know’ tendency among those who stick with traditional agencies despite their digital shortcomings. And similar fears fuel the frustrating habit of only awarding digital agencies with one-off projects that, despite their limited lifespans and budgets, still have to be pitched for.

Things are changing though and, as the market continues to mature, I think that two things will become much more prevalent:

Marketers conducting a major agency review or appointing a new roster will worry about strategy first and execution second. In this complex world, the agency that can truly deliver strategic analysis, insight and guidance is the one that can change the fortunes of a brand. Without a partner like that, no amount of clever execution can guarantee success.

For the specialist areas that matter most to an individual client (mobile, content marketing, social, etc.), digital agencies will increasingly be employed on a long-term, retained basis so that meaningful partnerships can develop. One-off projects will only be awarded to specialist agencies in areas that are peripherally important to a client’s marketing strategy and full pitches for these projects will become the exception, not the rule.

For the good of marketing and the success of the best, most talented agencies, let’s hope that these changes take root quickly.

SW SquareStephen Whyte has had a long career in advertising and marketing services. He started out at Abbott Mead Vickers before moving on to Leagas Delaney, Still Price Lintas and GGT Advertising. He then became managing director and chief executive of Leo Burnett before spending five years as chief executive of McCann Erickson London. He has been a board advisor to digital agency Profero and European chief executive of Acxiom, the consumer data, data services and analytics business. He currently runs NetVenture Consulting which helps a wide variety of digital media and marketing services businesses to grow more quickly and profitably.

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