How to hire the right marketing agency: The integrated vs. specialist debate

How to hire the right marketing agency: The integrated vs. specialist debate Covering tech trends across a number of key sectors, including telecoms, apps, marketing and IT, Matt is Editor in Chief of Tech Portfolio. Contact him via twitter @MattHenkes

The integrated Vs specialist marketing agency conundrum has been around for longer than many of us can remember; but what do the various pros and cons tell us about how this ever-changing discussion should influence marketers’ agency procurement decisions?

The argument is this; should brand marketers hire a large integrated marketing agency; a diverse team with bulging toolkits, the experience to provide joined-up, carefully aligned solutions, devised with a full 360 view of all available channels?

Or is the answer to work with numerous smaller specialist agencies that can burn deeper into their given channel, often with a powerful creative spark, but one that can potentially blind you to the promotional opportunities available outside their discipline?

Here’s the good news, the industry is currently a buyers’ market. There’s a lot of talent out there. And although it doesn’t necessarily make your job easier, this means that ultimately you won’t have a problem finding an agency. The key is, knowing how to look.

Integrated Vs Specialist

Specialist start-up agencies are essential to the marketing industry. They are generally the R&D pioneers of new technologies like mobile and social media analytics, who demonstrate what works and what doesn’t, before these channels are absorbed back into the integrated fold.

Both smaller, specialist agencies and larger, integrated agencies can add expertise, experience and extra resource to an in-house marketing function. But when choosing between them, marketing managers should consider a range of factors.

Recent research from the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) found that 85% of companies view campaign cohesion across multiple channels as a priority, although only a fifth of respondents felt this integration was regularly achieved. Using a multi-discipline agency with the ability to run a full service campaign can be a sure-fire route to achieve this joined-up ideal.

When employing a number of specialist agencies, a brand’s internal marketing structures and processes will need to be designed carefully to manage the cross-platform, cross-agency collaboration that will be crucial to campaign integration.

Chris Moriarty, head of corporate affairs at CIM, warns that managing several agencies takes time and requires specific skills. “The size and experience of the internal marketing team will be a crucial factor when deciding between approaches,” he says. “If the internal team is smaller or less experienced, it might be wise to employ a single integrated agency, reducing the time required to manage the relationship.

“If the team is larger and more experienced in project management, working with a number of specialist agencies is more feasible,” he adds.

However, this is not the easy road; failure to apply rigorous controls could leave you in the midst of a frustrating maelstrom of wasted effort. Specialists, by nature, can have a bias towards advocating their own field of expertise. Rivalry between competing teams can lead to all kinds of passive-aggressive jostling, resulting in poor communication and jeopardised campaign objectives.

In these cases, it’s crucial to make sure the internal team uses the right technological tools, as well as integrated and carefully-structured briefing, reporting and measurement formats to stay on top of the situation at every stage.  

Be receptive to change

Change is the key issue in all of this. By deciding to hire a new agency, you’ve already invited it, but what is the specific change your business needs? You want to boost your brand profile? You need to increase customer footfall or online traffic? A good agency will ask what needs to change to make this possible.

Tony Spong is business director at the client/agency relationship firm AAR Group. He says the best results come when brand marketers are willing to be flexible around their brief, taking time to develop their plan as they explore what the market has to offer. “You don’t have to have it buttoned down at the start, in fact I recommend you don’t,” he says.

Bringing a new agency in represents an opportunity to audit what your internal marketing function does day-to-day. The new agency doesn’t know what you’ve done in the past, so why not start from a position of what you would like to do. Ensure you’re spending money in the right places by making strategic decisions on what can be brought in house and what premium services you’ll pay the experts to provide.

“The tip would be to make sure you cut your cloth long enough before at the start,” advises Spong. “If you cut it too short, you won’t get the benefit. It’s so competitive out there, you’ll have lots of ideas coming at you from different angles, so be prepared to change your criteria as evidence arrives.

 “If you say, I’m only going down roads with pink coloured houses, all you’re ever going to see is pink coloured houses,” he adds. “But you’re missing a whole host of other colours.”

All agencies are specialists

Perhaps the problem might be to do with the way we approach the integrated Vs specialist debate. In essence, all agencies should be specialists at what they do. Your procurement decision shouldn’t come down to how many tools their service encompasses, but to your perception of their ability to deliver the change your business requires.

The well used analogy, and classic argument for the integrated camp, is that if the only tool you have in your bag is a hammer, your solution to every problem is going to include hitting something with a hammer.

Conversely, as a client, the last thing you want is to be shown a huge, complex bag of tools, then asked which one you want. What a business needs is to hire the best team with the best skills for the job. The right agency will understand this, regardless of their size, and present what they believe are the optimum solutions within their arsenal.

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