Separating agencies by specialties can work, but it's time to stop passing the buck. Here's a better approach.
My brother-in-law is an electrician for IBEW Local 3, which I vastly underestimated when he married into the family. Lawyers, doctors and accountants are nice to have, but a blue collar union guy is way more useful. He's also extremely handy at other construction matters, but I still wouldn't let him build me a whole house. Instead, there are carpenters, electricians, plumbers, et cetera who work together, leveraging their strengths to build a structure. The underlying theme here is that while you have people who can do facets of other people's jobs, it makes sense to leverage their strengths in a collaborative setting. This begs the question: If you wouldn't let an electrician build a whole house, why would you have one agency plan and execute all of your online marketing?
I was reading a recent article from The Wall Street Journal in which several companies that I respect were critiquing the current agency structure and trying to push Madison Avenue to come up with an integrated model. Based on my 10 years in the online space, not only do I not think we are getting there but, more importantly, I don't think it should be that much of a concern. I fear that if clients push us there, they'll end up with decent plumbing and lighting but a crooked house.
Shouldn't this have been solved by now?
With all the money, resources and clout, don't you think that if a large agency could have nailed integrating traditional and digital they would have by now? It would obviously provide them the ability to stamp out the pesky interactive agencies and eliminate their need to continue trying to buy us. How many e- or i-versions of a traditional shop do we need to see to realize that it's not as simple as it may seem. Culture, philosophy, logos, P&Ls and egos are just different -- between traditional and interactive -- and not the easiest things to meld together. It's not that big agencies don't want to adapt; it's just tougher to turn a battleship then a Schooner.
I want to make sure I am clear; I am not saying give up, or that it will never happen. I'm just saying that separating agencies by specialties can work, if handled properly.
Stop passing the buck
Here is the thing that I find the most interesting: Clients would like us to integrate, but I have met few if any traditional companies that are set up to plan and purchase in an integrated format. When I sold cross-media programs there were several clients I had to work with who all had a specialty. If you would like agencies to integrate, please integrate as well. If not, we're still going to have to deal with multiple meetings and learning curves.
I have a few clients that are struggling with internal competition. We have some ideas on who should own the category based on market share, company value, offerings to consumers, et cetera. However, there are a lot of politics, finance and egos that make this decision a lot more difficult. Although we know the answers, we have to manage the decision-making complexity that they live in. If an agency with this much experience struggles with category integration across business units, how easily can you expect your agency to handle integration?
Let's try and figure out why you want an integrated agency. Here are a few ideas:
Upfronts don't work online
The upfront is counterintuitive to interactive. In a world that changes so fast, why would you want to commit to a handful of partners? We continue to attend conferences that talk about the consumer being in control and that they want their media the way they want it when they want it. The theme here is flexibility and being able to adapt based on popularity and what's hot to consumers. The upfront buying strategy puts you in a box that doesn't allow you to take advantage of the very reason that you want an integrated agency in the first place, which means taking advantage of the fragmented media society.
One agency's view
Using one agency, you're stuck with one agency's view of how things work. One agency leads to vanilla plans that focus on their view of what is important or profitable. When you bring in experts from a few fields, ideas get bounced around and real marketing happens.
A hypothetical theory on this that I like to discuss is with Johnson's baby. Their tagline is "having a baby changes everything," and they're right. When I had my second daughter Logan, I didn't need to know that having a baby changes everything; I kind of knew that. Logan had sensitive skin and the same lotion that worked for Zoe (my first daughter) didn't work for her. If you're using one agency for all tactics they may be blinded by the baby message and not realize that they can stay broad and targeted for this campaign. They should continue with the broad reach campaign with print ad and TV, but online and search should change the online focus to both first-time parents, and parents who now have a second child. When I search for "changing diapers," I should get the "changes everything" message, but if I search for "sensitive skin lotion," I better get lotion.
How often will it make sense to buy the same property across multiple channels? Just because you buy Viacom, Fox, et cetera in the traditional world doesn't mean you should buy them online. For every print ad in American Baby, I can show you a better reason to compliment that with Babycenter or About.com on pregnancy. So do you want a discount or a good strategy?
Pssst. Another secret from someone who has worked at two media companies: 90 percent of us are not compensated the same way and, while we smile at the meeting, we're fighting internally as to why one is more valuable than the other, which means you, the client, lose. Last I checked, one of the best-performing tactics is search. There is no buying power in search. If Google breaks into traditional it still won't care that you're spending millions on TV because the auction model works perfectly for Google and levels the playing field. The company can't discount search pricing because you're a big company or it will have a revolt on its hands.
Agencies are just good at what they do
There is a reason Ogilvy has managed IBM so well, for years making some of the best campaigns I can remember (I still love "the magic box," and I have no idea what the box actually was). There's a reason Avenue A | Razorfish (whom I work for) is the only interactive agency to crack Ad Age's top 10; like the union analogy, we all have specialties.
I promise not to sell you print if you promise not to buy interactive from e-traditional. My wife's old business partner is a recruiter. When he had his kid, the doctor asked him if he wanted to cut the cord, to which he replied, "I don't ask you to phone screen, don't ask me to cut the cord." You don't want my search people to write print copy or your traditional agency to write search copy.
In a previous article on handling paid and organic search, I said that you should put your agencies in the same sandbox. Instead of forcing your agencies to crack a model that they haven't been able to just yet, let them live off their strengths and deliver you a world-class strategy. In order to make this happen, bring your agencies together at Zed's Pawn Shop and read them the following:
"I'm tired of reading Insert thought leader of the month and hearing Insert cliché of the month. I don't believe digital will kill traditional and vice versa. You're all important, and you're all going to help us solve our problems. Sometimes the answer is going to be traditional, but sometimes it's going to be digital. Sometimes we're going to lay out different tactics for each of you based on goals, but we're going to do it together. This means no more separate meetings on strategy or tactics. This means we all get together and decide what's best for me, because in the end, it's all about me. Don't feel threatened by each other; neither of you are going to steal the other's money unless it makes sense for my business. At the first hint that you're not playing well together, I'm bringing in the gimp and replacing you with Insert cool agency. We're going to develop a fees structure that plays to all your strengths and doesn't discount one of you because your tactic may be cheaper; it will be about performance. Now finish your Denver Omelet and let's go to work."
Joshua Palau is group director of search engine marketing for Avenue A | Razorfish. Read full bio.