As the media world rapidly changes, agencies scramble to figure out the best agency structure. It’s happening across the country (and the world), in agencies large and small. It’s a balancing act between generalists and specialists, between the old and new regimes.
Think for a moment how “gray” things have become. Lines between direct response and general advertising are blurry and becoming more so as clients push agencies toward accountability. Boundaries between planners and buyers are fuzzier as we move from buying media units to creating more holistic programs. Account planners are becoming media strategists. Public relations is no longer reserved for PR firms. Add interactive or digital marketing to the fracas. See how difficult it is to place it in a box on the organizational grid?
Some believe interactive marketing belongs in the direct response camp. After all, the medium is clearly response oriented. Others insist interactive marketing sits in the general agency bucket in the move toward more integrated media programs and negotiations. Some think interactive planning and buying should be separated, like offline media. Still others are convinced interactive is a unique specialty and should remain so, outside a traditional ad agency environment.
If I could accurately predict the future, I’d be a happy (and retired) man. I won’t even attempt to predict how all this ambiguity will eventually play out. Instead, I’ll focus on the short term (defined as the next two or three years) and what may be some best practices in organizing a world-class communications company.
It’s important to speak in terms of communications rather than advertising. The remit has clearly changed. We have a discipline at our agency: “communications architecture.” The discipline is based on a platform-agnostic approach across all channels: general advertising, direct response, PR, events, interactive, product packaging, and so on.
Our “communications architects” guide clients through a rigorous exploration phase, resulting in driver and barrier identification. This ultimately leads to a blueprint for success. Along the journey, it’s the communications architect’s job to pull in discipline specialists who can lend expertise from his area. Interactive can play a specific role in the mix or perform a “horizontal function,” the glue that binds all the elements of the solutions set.
Not to toot our own horn, but the approach makes a great deal of sense. It doesn’t always work perfectly, as when a client (or an agency) has an agenda preventing it from true platform neutrality. But I can safely say when an agency and a client honestly and openly discuss business barriers and opportunities with open minds, results are amazing. It’s also nice to see interactive marketing typically playing a significant role in the solution set from such a scenario.
Another area warranting discussion is geographic proximity. One cannot minimize the impact location plays in agency design. I won’t get into all possible permutations, but agencies are organized in a variety of ways. A “typical” structure may have all members of one discipline sitting together, such as planners, buyers, interactive people, and direct response (DR) people. When specialists sit together, they enjoy the benefits of shared insights and information that better inform their area of expertise. For this reason, it’s important to sit with ones peers. Or is it?
Organizing around a client is something agencies have been doing for some time. It’s becoming more commonplace. Planners sit next to buyers; interactive specialists sit next to DR practitioners; they, in turn, sit next to Hispanic experts. What binds them is a singular focus: the client. In a complicated environment, this structure is increasingly beneficial. Proximity for a client-centric team permits a level of integration that would be harder to achieve in discipline silos.
Testing and Optimization
Perhaps the best advice for those of you trying to figure out how to best organize for success is to do what we interactive folk do best: test and optimize. There really is no one-size-fits-all solution. Client/agency relationships take a variety of forms, and client objectives are far-ranging.
One thing is certain. The agency of old is rapidly becoming extinct. The agency of the future is being created now. It sure is an exciting time to be in this business.
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