10 September 2010

Can One Agency Really Do It All for a Client?

Can one agency really do it all for a client?

It depends on what you mean by “all”.

Almost any agency today, unless dedicated to a single discipline, will claim they can “do it all”. As Dan Goldgeier points out, this is often a questionable claim. Few agencies have literally every discipline right at hand. Many claim they can “do it all” with resources somewhere in their holding company. Let’s assume for a moment you can honestly claim to “have it all” either in-house, via corporate siblings, or by hiring free-lancers. Advertising, digital, retail, public relations – everything.

“Have it all” versus “Do it all”

Even if it you “have it all” there are still three overarching keys to “doing it all”:

Media-neutrality. This is a central topic on this blog so it hurt a bit when Goldgeier wrote: “Listen for a line like this: ‘We begin with the idea. We’re media neutral.’ More often than not, it’s bull.” He's right, though: few agencies have a true media-neutral perspective. Clients can hire almost any collection of agencies and get the various disciplines they think they need. They can't, however, write separate budgets for advertising, retail and digital, expecting them to magically fit together. Someone, either a sole agency or a lead agency, has to oversee a media-neutral strategy.

Mindset. Media-neutrality comes from a mindset that if everything starts with the consumer, we will combine all the disciplines in an optimal mix tailored to the client’s business needs. Perhaps we should call this an “open mindset” because my experience is that we must be open to where the data and the insights lead us. For the team to achieve this kind of open-mindedness, it needs great generalists as well as great specialists. If all you have is specialists, the work is likely to get bogged down in media-specific thinking.

Money. Teams of agencies have a hard time sharing projects because each one has its own profit pressure. It’s important for a single-agency team, working on a single assignment for a single client, to have a common P&L. This centralized accounting structure makes the whole team equally responsible for the result. Similarly, the client may want to consider media-neutral compensation. For example, if they normally pay a commission on media for TV advertising and an hourly fee for retail, maybe a unified fee structure is in order.

Why ask one agency to do it all?

I’ve come to the conclusion that one-agency-doing-it-all won’t be an industry standard. To Goldgeier’s point, very few agencies really have the resources. Fewer still are structured in such a way that they are truly media-neutral, have the right mindset, and can overcome money problems.

So why would you ask one agency to do it all?

Partnership. If you are one of the few clients today with a strong agency partnership focused on solving business problems, congratulations. Ask as much of that partner as you dare. If they care about your business, know your consumer and can outfox your competition, they’re a great partner.

Effectiveness. Having multiple outside partners fighting over budgets won’t solve much. Having a single, trusted partner will give you the best combination of an outside sounding board and a fair arbiter of how to allocate your budget among the many different media available today.

Efficiency. One creative resource at the helm means that you stand a better chance of getting a single, consumer-relevant, media-neutral idea that can be executed across channels. This will make your overall budget work harder because the messages will be synchronized.

This isn’t just theory, it’s my experience. Please use the comments section to tell me about yours.


  1. Steve, these are all excellent points. Can't really argue with anything you're saying here.

    What often gets overlooked is that there are a ton of small & mid-sized agencies that truly have to do it all for their clients (who themselves may have limited budgets). We don't always hear about them, but plenty of shops are plugging away at it. And it's difficult when there are so many new outlets for reaching customers and tactics that are getting increasingly complex.

    It'll be very interesting to see how agencies and clients navigate the next few years. The profit pressure you mention is squeezing *everyone*, and often great ideas are sacrificed because of it.

    I do think there are agencies that can do it all--or orchestrate it all, to a good degree. It's not easy, that's for sure.

    Thanks again for taking my column a good step further--I'm always appreciative when anyone takes the time to respond so thoughtfully.

  2. Steve, I agree with pretty much everything you've said here.

    The one notion I would question is "Someone, either a sole agency or a lead agency, has to oversee a media-neutral strategy"

    In my opinion, the real leadership for this really needs to come from client marketing organization. The problem is, most are not yet properly organized to provide that leadership. With a few notable exceptions, client marketing organizations are staffed and structured for 1980, not 2010.

    In my opinion, what's needed is a Chief Brand Integration Officer.

    More about that here: http://tinyurl.com/brand-integration-officer

  3. Great comments above from two people I respect a lot -- thanks for commenting.

    @Tom: The idea of a "chief brand integration officer" is one that I think will catch on quickly. A couple of CPG companies have positions like this and one of my clients is piloting it for one of their brands. Many brand managers let each of their functional departments -- promotion, digital, etc. -- handle their disciplines in silos. Instead, they should be managing the various disciplines much more closely to ensure they complement one another.

    @Dan: No, thanks to YOU for getting me thinking. You are absolutely right about small and mid-sized agencies: they are much less compartmentalized and hence the various disciplines flow together much more smoothly. I would add that most agencies outside the U.S. work this way, too, for the same reason. Much of my experience is overseas and it's easy to understand why we see such great "IMC" campaigns from around the world.

    Thanks again, gentlemen!

  4. Steve,
    I believe one agency can be the go-to for all client needs, but that agency needs to be confident and honest enough in their capabilities to know when they need to bring in supplier to augment their skill set in order to deliver on their clients' needs. A single agency can't have every expertise needed (e.g. delivering samples on-campus to college students in Florida, while also being able to reach moms in-store with digital coupons), but that agency can facilitate the programs for their clients and utilize the respective experts.

    At PromoAid (disclaimer -- my company) -- we provide this very service to our agency clients. We assist our clients by identifying the best programs and suppliers to meet their or their clients' specific needs and provide up to 30 data points about those programs. That way, the agency can maintain their relationships with their clients, and can offer additional expertise beyond their immediate skill sets.