Are We Ready for Specialized Agencies?

Before I get into this week’s topic, let me say it’s nice to be back from a wonderful vacation. My wife and I spent a week on the Minnesota/Canadian border in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is over 1 million acres of the most pristine, rugged wilderness available in this country. I thought I might be able to pull a topic for this column from my vacation experience. However — sacrilege though it may be to say so here — it was enormously refreshing to have the most technologically advanced item in our possession be a camp stove (which I carried on my back and in my canoe with only sparse other bare essentials we deemed critical to survival). But alas, I’m back and here we go again.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the right model for current and future interactive agencies. There are many models to choose from and countless examples of each to examine. Most, if not all, have borrowed from traditional agencies, and parallels are easily drawn.

On the traditional side, a client that wants a superior creative product may go to a shop such as Fallon or Wieden + Kennedy. Online, that same client may go to the likes of RG/A. For media clout and expertise, offline folks may look to the Universal McCanns and MediaVests of the world. The online equivalent can be found with Universal McCann Interactive or Avenue A.

But does this make sense right now? Should there be specialized shops, “subject matter experts” if you will, that focus solely on one area while letting the other important pieces go elsewhere? I’m not sure.

From what I’ve seen over the past year or so, it seems increasingly important an interactive shop address all aspects of interactive business. Rare is the client that is spending enough money to separate media and creative services. For interactive services, separate services just don’t seem to make a lot of sense right now.

That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. We have several clients for which we do the media and other shops do the creative, or vice versa. However, these situations are largely legacy driven. For example, a Web development shop may have initially built a brand’s Web site and subsequently manages and updates the site. Then along comes a media shop to handle all corporate planning and buying. If the client is happy with its Web dev firm (and that firm is intimately familiar with the brand), then that firm will likely be retained for creative services. But by and large, this doesn’t seem justifiable in most cases.

On the traditional side, the amount of money being spent by a client created the need and logic to employ subject matter experts. From the media side, it was to make sure the money was spent efficiently and effectively. Enter planning and buying shops such as Universal McCann. From a creative side, it was to ensure all money worked as hard as possible by breaking through clutter and connecting with the consumer. All of that makes sense to me.

More often, however, I hear stories of clients looking across the table at two different shops said to be “strategically connected and integrated” (or some other agency-speak). The client says, “I don’t get the relationship. I’m confident that Shop A can do the media and Shop B can do the creative. But where does the strategy sit? Who leads what? Can you each do what you do together?” Let the tap dancing begin. You try to respond in ways that make it sound like a nonissue and completely manageable. Meanwhile, you’re fearing the opportunity might slip away. You say things such as “one point of contact,” “subject matter experts,” “complete synergy,” and “total integration.” In the back of your mind, you see the turf battles between shops escalating to full-on war.

Why would a client want to endure that? Why do agencies want to jeopardize their ability to secure profitable new business by voluntarily entering such a quagmire? A client would be more willing to hand over interactive business when it sees everything it needs under one roof. Chances are it doesn’t allocate enough company resources (financial or human) to justify multiple relationships. Your ability to consolidate services will increase the odds you get the business. Ultimately, having all of those services in one place creates more revenue opportunity and, most likely, more attractive margin contributions.

Let me know what you think.

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