“Can my agency model deliver what I need going forwards” is a question I hear frequently during my travels. And it’s never been trickier to answer.
For a start, channel proliferation and marketers’ increasing desire to work with specialists means that most agency rosters are bigger than ever before. At the same time, the whole agency model is being rethought. Questions like “which aspects of marketing should be outsourced” and “which should be brought in-house” are being revisited as issues such as efficiency and being always-on become more important.
Added to that is the need to integrate all the diverse channels to deliver maximum effectiveness, plus the constant pressure on the marketing budget.
Then there’s the constant fear of disruption and the rise of new competitors. And the corresponding fear of missing a new market opportunity by not being a disruptor yourself. All that’s enough to blow anyone’s mind, especially when they’re under time and resource pressure themselves.
Of course, there’s no sane answer to the question of how big the ideal roster should be. No two agency models or rosters will be the same, just as no two companies are the same. At AAR we always say you should have as many agencies as needed to give you the capabilities you require, and as few as possible to get the job done efficiently and effectively.
There are a few warning signs that might suggest now is the time to rethink your agency model:
- Are you hitting your business targets? There are clearly lots of possible reasons for poor business performance other than just having the wrong agency model. However, it’s still worth reappraising your options in this situation, if only so you can tell the Board you’ve done so. Even if you are on track, there may still be a problem if you know you’re likely to be disrupted soon and that you need to up your game, or that you’re going to need to do things differently. Or things might be okay, but could be better, which in many ways is harder to deal with, as there’s no burning platform to drive change.
- Are there parts of your agencies’ work that aren’t as good as you believe they should be? Few marketers have the chance to establish their agency roster from scratch. Instead rosters are inherited and grow organically as new skills are required. So, while agencies should always be given a chance to shine, you may find your needs have changed, or that an addition to your roster that made sense at the time no longer works as part of the overall output. There might also be an agency on the roster that was appointed to work outside its core competence as a “quick win”, but which is proving unable to meet your quality threshold.
- Is the process of getting the work done painful? This can be another indicator of an agency working outside their specialism, but it could also suggest your team is having problems working with the agency in question, or is struggling with the sheer number of agencies they have to deal with. Similar problems can also manifest themselves dealing with integrated agencies, where the implied promise of one seamless process has never really materialised.
- When you ask for new thinking, do you find everyone saying they can help you, but you’re still not getting the simplicity and clarity you need? Are you being offered too many ideas, but not enough options? You need to be able to access the right expertise whatever the problem, and whatever level it’s at. So, if you’re considering a change in strategy, you don’t want people constantly talking campaign execution or Business As Usual (BAU).
- Do you have the right commercial terms and management structures in place to allow your agencies to do their best work? And more importantly, to ensure you, your team and the agencies work well together. I’ve come across a number of clients who talk grandly about treating their agencies as a “council of experts” which they bring together to solve the marketing problems facing the business. It’s an evolution of the old “a great idea can come from anywhere” approach, but you need the commercial terms to support it. Yes, an agency might come up with a great idea outside their discipline, but what’s their incentive to suggest it if they know another agency will get the work and the money?
What all this comes down to is whether you believe you have the skills and knowledge you need to tackle your biggest problems – or opportunities – within your internal team and your agency partners. For some clients I speak to, the answer is “yes, but I need to do some things differently”. For others, the answer is “actually I’m not convinced I do”.
There are always ways to improve things, from tweaks to ways of working to building on strengths. There is also a time for something more radical. The trick is to ensure that you always focus on simplicity and clarity. And as I know from personal experience client-side, the bigger the issue, the more important it is to get the right people to help you “boil the ocean”, without making you feel you actually are boiling the ocean.