Too many agencies spoil the brand

As a digital executive producer, I work at the intersection of strategy and implementation. In the years I’ve worked in digital (14 years and counting), digital is finally getting major traction with clients. In the past, clients were very much seeing digital as another channel and treating it in a very tactical way or worse, leaving their website to the IT department to build and update (shudder).

The main reason for this shift, I believe, is driven by the key demographics of the 18-25 year olds living their lives online. Now, advertisers have no choice except to go where their customers are. Hitwise Australia research from a year ago (Feb 2008) says in Australia there are more than 1.2 million users in the 18-24 year-old bracket who class themselves as active online users. Brands who’ve only dabbled in corporate websites are suddenly realising that they have to bring the brand to the customer rather than expect the customer is going to come to them.

The best of all digital brand strategies involve a big idea, and the closer it is to a brand “truth” the more successful it is. I find the US does an integrated strategy really well, here in Australia, there’s a tendency “tack on” digital as an afterthought to a TVC. Take the Clio 2008 award winning Tide To Go or the HBO Voyeur campaign. Both of them have digital at the heart of the interaction (whether sharing stories or viewing stories) and both of them were developed by big idea, integrated ad agencies.

It amazes me when clients have 7 different agencies and silo all their brand activities into what they see as different channels. One previous client had one agency for TV and print, one for electronic Direct Mail, one for digital strategy, one for digital execution, one for search, one for promotions and one for media. The client thought they could tell all the 7 agencies what to do separately and it was complete and unmitigated chaos when it came to putting a promotion online and send out a corresponding eDM newsletter. It involved four of the seven agencies and the client – 5 parties all making their own change requests. No surprises, without centralised change control, mistakes were made, it took 5 times longer to do anything and there was a lot of double, triple and quadruple handling of files. The cost to the client was insane too, with all the different agencies billing for their slice of the production line.

I find the most successful campaigns or brand strategies has the idea owners (usually the strategic, brand or above the line agency) run the idea through the relevant channels. That’s not to say that they need to do everything, more that they need to be hands on where the the rubber hits the road, the point at which the creative concept (the big idea) becomes a tactical execution. It’s in the clients interest to give this responsibility to the lead agency, and hold them accountable for the execution. So many times, the way the “big idea” is executed becomes about cutting corners because of “saving money”, or its “death by a thousand cuts” the slow, slicing and removing of functionality because of a lack of understanding how it is an essential part of the bigger, strategic picture.

Quite often the brand agency knows more about protecting the integrity of the brand than the client does. So why is it that clients insist on micromanaging every single specialist they engage? My guess is the more agencies you’ve engaged directly, you’re either over controlling or nervous. Last year, search was the flavour of the month, and clients were engaging search agencies who then carved out fees for themselves doing search audits and making arbitary information architecture recommendations, without any consideration of either the overall brand strategy or user experience. I always take it back to the overarching brand strategy – what are the big picture goals you’re trying to achieve for the brand? When there’s lots of agencies being pitted against each other by a client wanting to get lots of ideas, its the brand that suffers in the jockeying for position, rather than benefiting from the agencies working together for the greater good of the brand

So in difficult times, what’s the best way of getting lots of different agencies to work together and play nice? How do you work with others when your client forces you to work with other agencies? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

  • I completely agree – the agency that is seen to own the strategy and trusted to recommend the best creative execution should be the agency in the lead. I find its often specialist agencies with overzealous suits/planners who will fight their way to the top table with clients. Yes, this is a necessary evil in a competitive industry, but the onus should be on clients to learn to TRUST one key group of agency people (they can either be from one agency or they can be a steering comittee across the key agencies) to manage their business goals and how this should affect their comms strategy and budget.

    Anything less and the client gets exactly what they deserve: several agencies with several agendas that will end up costing them more in the long-run.

  • Tobe

    If the idea is strong enough, the strategy is iron clad and the client is a believer, many can work on a campaign, just like they do in one agency.

  • Yes its great having a collaborative environment, where it goes off track is when clients tend to pit one agency against another. And in fact its ideal working with specialists, but easier to manage and wrangle when its handled through a single point of contact, from a project management perspective.

  • mrhames

    I've sat in the room when a client invites all agency partners to solve the digital conundrum. BTW, I agree with the notion that the 'above the line' agencies are better at the execution. They care about the tone, the voice, etc.

    But I disagree about the 'big idea'. I think the client that tries a lot of little ideas will do better in this world. I'm not saying that the big idea is dead, I just think the process is due for an update.

  • Idea owners = the “above the line agency” IS the status quo. And that's often the problem, particularly when the so-called “strategic agency” is being charged with producing the :30 spots and print ads. The client doesn't get a big idea that works across all media, they get a “big idea” or “story” that's ideally suited for the old marketing model of one-to-many…publication and broadcast. Clients also don't get a strategy that works across all disciplines, they get matching luggage.

    The vast majority of “above the line”, “strategic” agencies simply don't get digital. They don't understand the user mindset – they think of themselves as producers of entertainment to be distributed to passive audiences, and hopefully their entertaining content will persuade or create “buzz”. This entertainment mindset fails miserably in media where users are in active control, because the content agencies typically create provides no value to the consumer.

  • There us a movement here in Australia to integration, most of the ATL agencies are scrambling to “get” digital and as a consequence the creative teams have digital creatives to help them make sure the “big idea” really is translatable to all media. Digital creatives (me too!) hate the matching luggage mindset – it serves no-one to be tokenistic in the digital space, because it will be ignored.

    My frustration was more around clients pitting agencies against each other rather than there being a single point of focus for a brand message. Mainly because the client manages the relationships individually rather than sitting down to a holistic round table approach. Too many times I've seen the promotions or search or DM agency take off on a tangent with the resulting executions, digital and otherwise that are cringeworthy and completely off brand.

    I think we agree the issue is that the big idea has to genuinely be built to work in digital as it is the primary channel particularly if you want to engage those “born digital” now. Then secondarily, tell the 30 or 60 second story on TV, but purely to drive where they can interact with the brand – online. Which is why digital agencies are gaining more power in this environment- if they get brand and the “big idea” they have everything to gain, and can steal work away from the old school ATL agencies who live in the past and don't work online.