Why every agency village usually has an idiot

For many marketing organisations, a diversified roster of specialist agencies can be an extremely effective and appropriate model. Particularly at the moment, it would seem.

It’s easy to understand why.

Advantages of the multi-agency approach

With channels, data opportunities and technological options developing as fast as they have over the last few years, specialists are sometimes what you need. When marketers feel that they need to move faster, cheaper, and more flexibly, specialist agencies can often help them achieve that.

Clients can start with a clean slate with a new agency for each new initiative. When working with individual roster agencies clients are fronted by a team of discipline enthusiasts working on a single, focused channel brief.

It’s such a change from the usual approach of the lead agency with the generalist account team trafficking every piece of work, noticing every missed deadline and changed brief and sharing (or arguing about) guardianship of the brand.

Marketers also get the benefit of new perspectives on their business from directions they had never thought of before. In an environment where a piece of technology can quickly move from communications tactic to consumer utility to an element of business strategy, many marketers feel they can’t miss the chance to get that extra perspective.

In many cases, the fear of missing out can drive roster expansion as much as anything else.

So as you can see, there are some clear advantages to the multi-agency approach for the marketer.

And for the specialist agency too, there are some terrific upsides.

It’s a chance to get onto some big, prestigious rosters and work on some famous brands – often with the potential for demonstrable results. And it’s a way to work on the things you enjoy doing and become expert in doing them.

So, what’s the problem?

The trouble is that appointing a roster of specialists is just the easy bit. It’s not even half the job that needs to be done if the exercise is to succeed for marketers and agencies alike.

This is what worries us. Because it’s just after the appointment where a lot of marketers seem to think the work stops.

The truth is that if, as a marketer, you are going to construct a village model of multiple agencies working across the communications for one brand, then the responsibility to manage it properly lies with you. And you simply can’t do that with the same marketing structures, organisation and processes that you used when you only had two or three agencies.

If you do, you risk becoming the idiot in the village.

It’s not good enough just to tell the agencies to collaborate with each other and expect them to sort it out. You can’t expect a village of agencies, each working on a fraction of the overall marketing spend, to help you manage your stakeholder group in the same way as the fully retained, former lead agency used to do.

In other words, marketers need to step up.

More agencies on your roster means more work for you, not less. The way you do business needs to change even more than the make-up of your roster has changed.

Yet what we have seen more and more over the last year or so is marketing organisations trumpeting their new best-in-breed rosters of discipline specialists – but without a single mention of any organisational restructure, process overhaul, definition of roles and responsibilities for the newly appointed agencies, agreed terms of engagement or revised remuneration models.

What we usually hear is something vague about everyone being excited to be working together, along with something rather more sinister about everyone pitching for the lead on each project.

If the one or two existing marketer-agency relationships were dysfunctional before the pitch, then having ten dysfunctional relationships after the pitch is going to solve nothing – and probably make things far worse.

Not that the marketers are completely to blame here, though.

Agencies need to ask questions

As the great and wise Homer Simpson tells us: ‘Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie, and one to listen.’

Plenty of agencies are seemingly prepared to go into a village model without rules of engagement, defined roles and responsibilities or guaranteed revenue – and without the guts to ask the appointing clients for these basic business essentials before beginning work.

Little wonder that so many marketers don’t bother to put these things in place when there is always a queue of agencies around the block waiting to take the business with no questions asked.

And it’s not as if we don’t all know what happens next.

What happens when there are no rules?

In the absence of any governance or guidance from the marketers, the roster agencies start competing with each other for assignments, leadership and revenue.

Now, of course, some marketers welcome this kind of competition between agencies – and certainly in some cases it can be strategically and creatively very productive, at least for a time.

But in many cases, it simply serves to flatter the marketing team and cover up their inability to make decisions, manage stakeholders and provide a strategic lead.

Most importantly, the opportunity cost to the business of a roster focused on internal rivalries, revenue insecurities and client appeasement can be enormous.

So, perhaps marketers and agencies should be careful what they wish for in 2016.

For agencies, maybe they need to remember that a place on a roster is not the same as a role on a piece of business. They need to force the question of governance and roster management with the marketers, and be prepared to walk away if no sensible answers are forthcoming.

And for marketers, perhaps they should realise more often that a diversified roster of specialist agencies also means more management of agencies, marketers and stakeholders, not the same or less.

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