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The Traits of a Collaborative Agency

  |  January 29, 2009   |  Comments

Why media agency models must evolve.

Let's start with a little free association.

I'll throw out some adjectives, and you name the first agency that comes to mind.





Let me guess, you can't think of an agency you'd describe as collaborative? Well, let's move on. We'd probably be here all day before you think of one.

That won't be the case for long, though. In a few years time agencies that "deliver" collaboration will be as sought after as those that deliver big ideas.

The coveted lead agency position will be held not by the cleverest or the best connected, but by the most collaborative.

Why? Because integrated marketing by definition requires collaboration among experts from different disciplines and companies, and yet...agencies suck at collaboration.

This is a fundamental roadblock to producing great work that has been obscured in the short term because as channels expand the industry's focus is on production. Who can do the online? The mobile? Do we have a social media expert? A buzz marketing team? And on and on.

The agency selection process requires that we tick the boxes on all this stuff that has to be made, which leads us to perpetuate the two great myths of integrated marketing:

  • The myth of the one-stop shop

  • The myth of the holding company dream team

Let's quickly put these two fictions out of their misery.

What makes this industry so exciting at this moment is the fact that it is changing so fast -- literally every day. I don't even have the time to read all the updates that come from sources like Mashable, let alone think about how they could be used for my clients. If a client is really serious about taking advantage of all this potential, there is just no way that one agency is the answer.

Multiple agencies are required, and the major holding companies own all of the various assets in question. Unfortunately, holding company agencies can't work together productively, and aren't going to learn how.

That's because holding companies are about risk management, not client management. They are creations of the financial world that exist to serve the interests of shareholders, not individual clients that need to solve marketing problems.

Agencies within holding companies are like pit bulls: it's not their fault they bite, they're just doing what they've been trained to do, which is deliver on their own financials at all costs. Growing the overall market share for the holding company is neither encouraged nor rewarded.

If one agency can't solve all of a client's needs, and multiple agencies organized under a holding company can't either, then there must be a third way.

That way will be led by a new kind of agency, one that is collaborative at its core. I don't know which specific agency will fill this niche, but I can tell you exactly what it will look like.

Someone's name will be on the door. In order to deliver on the promise of collaboration the entire culture of the organization will need to be aligned, which requires an absolute commitment from the top down. It's the kind of culture that a founder is best positioned to build.

The company will be focused on long-term growth, which is to say that it will be privately held. The strategy of growth through collaboration requires an expansive view of opportunity: rather than horde every bit of potential revenue the agency will choose to bring in better-suited experts when appropriate. This short-term sacrifice will lead to stronger, larger client relationships, but public companies are constitutionally incapable of making this sort of trade-off.

The company's leadership will demonstrate humility and reward employees who do the same. The company will be generous with introductions and creating opportunities for its friends and partners. It will strive to facilitate, not dominate. Don't bother sending it an RFP: it won't waste its time on dog-and-pony shows because it will be too busy servicing the work it gets from referrals.

If this sounds like an agency of sissies, think again. The agency will have great confidence in its own abilities, and be expert at many things -- just not all things. Its goal in creating a collaborative competency and culture won't "to be nice," but to capture the tremendous business opportunity that the new world of marketing so clearly requires.

So get ready, because one day soon you'll be taking orders from this kind of agency. But don't worry, they won't feel like orders. It will all be very collaborative.

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Adam Cahill

Adam Cahill is the EVP, Media at Hill Holliday. You can connect with him on Twitter at @adamcahill.

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