TL;DR: The days of traditional “AORs” are numbered. As globalization continues to evolve, the important task of reaching consumers will become more attainable, but at a much more nuanced and complex level. In order for brands to be successful across a number of initiatives, programs and projects, they must work with specialists who have deep expertise within their field.
As a marketer today, it’s impossible to be skilled in every discipline when marketing itself is being redefined on a daily basis — whether that be Branding, Social Media, SEM/SEO, CRM, UI/UX, B2B, B2C, PR or Offline, the list goes on and on. Now more than ever, it’s vital to find the right partner who shares your organization’s vision and values, and at the same time has the required practice to help guide you down a successful path and execute strategies quickly and effectively.
Here are few ways that the landscape is shifting to specialization as opposed to generalization, and what this means for brands and agencies alike:
Digital media requires focus
Working in digital requires a strong focus on analysis, trends and technology, especially as the space evolves so quickly. In order for brands to get the best return on investment, they need to work with the minds that know (and are immersed in) the medium best. From multiple layers of management to complicated approval processes, full-service agencies are often times too big and too slow to keep up with the incessant demands of digital. The intricacies of digital marketing and the multi-disciplined skills required to execute takes intense expertise in order to be successful.
For example, at Sparkloft we recently developed and implemented a highly-targeted social media campaign to raise awareness of Oregon as a travel destination in the Japanese market — on a shoestring budget. Because of our sharp insights and competence in targeted social media advertising, we were able to create content and reach that niche audience in a way that drove real impact for our client. If we didn’t focus so much of our energy on understanding the extensive capabilities of social ads, we wouldn’t have been able to pull off this successful campaign within our client’s tight budget. Which brings me to my next point...
Specialized shops/teams are more nimble
Small shops are built on flexibility. Being agile is necessary for a successful marketing program — the faster and more effectively brands can reach consumers, the better the chance at making a meaningful connection. At large agencies you often encounter internal politics, poor communication and antiquated (and multi-layered) processes that impede on getting great creative and messaging to market.
If you go smaller, you tend to get more
Unless you’re a massive account (think Coca Cola), your brand probably won’t be a priority at a big agency. However, at a boutique shop, your project and initiative will likely have the attention and focus of many accomplished minds — you’ll also receive more personalized service.
As specialty shops are smaller, they tend to be leaner and more efficient, leaving more hours to concentrate on the work. Full-service agencies often have substantial overhead which clients have to cover, and if a department is struggling, brands are often subjected to up-selling of services — many times when it’s not relevant to the business's needs. Smaller shops are able to focus on client needs rather than short-term net revenue. As I’ve experienced at my own agency, boutique shops are also able to adapt roles and deliverables based on the target audience, not the internal business model.
Talented minds seek innovative environments
Talent is attracted to smaller shops for a variety of reasons: from more hands-on work and better work-life balance to a more entrepreneurial culture and better growth opportunities. Furthermore, specialized agencies typically have deeper insights, which drives better work and results — something top talent wants to get behind.
What this means for brands:
In order to be successful with a multi-agency approach, brand standards, objectives, agency role definition and KPIs must be clearly communicated and documented from the beginning.
Client-side talent may move toward generalist roles with high-level perspective. Working with multiple agencies will require your team sees the big picture of where you want to go, how their role and team fits in and how each channel is working together to move the needle.
More partners equal more hands-on management and will rely heavily on effective communication. It will be essential that your team communicates clearly across multiple touch points and knows how to juggle multiple projects with ease.
Push back to the agencies to collaborate and come to your brand with big ideas.
What this means for agencies:
Collaborating and playing well with others will be more important than ever. As long as partner agencies don’t feel their contracted work is being threatened, working with various boutique agencies can yield impressive solutions.
Specialization does not mean uninformed. All agencies need to understand the total communications ecosystem, making sure the message, creative and objectives are being distributed throughout and meet the client's business needs.
It’s important to note there are benefits and reasons that brands would hire a one-stop-shop for all their marketing needs. Generalist agencies tend to have built-in departments and vendors for integrated marketing programs at a large scale (think international outdoor campaign). However, though large agencies can go wide, they can’t often go deep into a category or vertical — that’s the value of small agencies.
Traditional AORs will still have a place in the world, but I believe their role will shift to be more of a project manager than that of a strategist. Working with more than one agency means there will be a lot of moving parts, but the potential payoff of a multi-agency model is huge.