Saturday, July 24, 2010

Managing the turf war

There’s an almighty land grab going on in which traditional ad agencies are fighting on all fronts with branding, design and digital agencies, not to mention PR and management consultants, all claiming expertise and grasping for parts of what would have previously been their budget. This really muddies the pond for marketers who are used to relying on their above-the-line agency for brand direction and making everyone else follow suit.

If you are a marketer at the moment no doubt your PR agency is coming up with ideas for social media campaigns, your digital agency wants to do print ads and your design agency has thoughts on corporate structure. All of a sudden everyone has ideas and they’re not afraid to use them.

With the ever-increasing number of channels that need to be serviced and monitored, the health of brands will start to depend a lot on how they manage their various agencies and how resources are distributed across these channels.

And it’s not just time and money. How do you carve up the strategy among multiple channels and still keep a clear consistent message?

Marketers should not make the mistake of thinking they can put all these agencies in a room together and work it out amongst themselves. I’ve sat through several ‘pan-agency’ strategy meetings and they are, without exception, a hideously counter-productive soup of indignation, deviousness and chest-thumping.

As with so many issues in our industry, the secret is in the brief. Now more than ever, the client needs to be the one driving the strategy bus and using good briefing to carve up the responsibility for ideas and execution among their agencies.

I’m aware that this thought might give ad agencies (and particularly their planning departments) the heebies and I admit that I haven’t come across enough clients who really do this well. But I’ve also seen the big old mess that comes from brands being pushed and pulled in all directions by a roster of agencies that all think they know best.

Gone are the days of the long-standing, full-service relationship in which the ad agency knew the brand as well as, if not better than, the marketers themselves. There will never again be a neat formula of ATL + BTL = ad campaign. The very notion of a ‘campaign’ is probably in question anyway.

So what are marketers to do?

I think the new learning for this era will be about how and when to set briefs which do and do not transcend the boundaries of media. By this I mean, every agency wants to get the ultimate do what feels right, ‘media agnostic’ brief and will often turn in cross-media ideas even if they have not been briefed on them.

Clients need to have a sense of how their strategy will best pan out across multiple channels and how to tie everything to a clear, central brand idea, then brief each agency accordingly. All the while being careful not to give briefs which are too dictatorial. Nothing is as greater creative buzz-kill for an agency than being told the solution instead of the problem.

To have one agency who really understands your brand and leads the strategy for all channels is a very attractive proposition for many reasons. Not the least of which is only having to deal with (and pay for) one Account Manager. And there are many new smaller agencies who are managing to do cross-media thinking very well. But unless this agency really can do it all (both in ideas and execution) you get the problem that any other agencies you need to pull in will be forced to play second fiddle. A role which in my experience, good agencies are rarely happy to do.

The reality is that agencies will accept a strong strategic lead from their client more easily than they will from another agency.

If the idea of the large international ‘catch-all’ agency is to prevail, I doubt it will come from any of the traditional holders of that title. Some creative destruction will certainly be needed to make way for innovation. It’s likely we will see both more specialisation and more diversification as the agency turf war continues. But in the meantime, clients are the ones who have to rise to the challenge of navigating the storm. The health of their brands, their budgets and their sanity depends on it.


  1. I liked your commentary, Kate. I might quibble only with your use of the term "media agnostic". I prefer media neutral and here's why:

    I will add that we have had good success working with teams of our clients' agencies. Here's an example:

    Thanks for the great post! I'm suggesting it via Twitter.

  2. Thanks Steve. At last someone commenting on my blog. I like it.

    I agree with you about 'media-agnostic'. I was using the term slightly facetiously, as it is bandied about so much.

    I'm going to enjoy working my way through your blog. Lots of common ground there, I think.