The Agency Landscape: Provocations around where 2016 will take us

There is enormous complexity in marketing today. Trends and technology make things feel like they are changing everyday.

It has caused us to have dozens of silos of agency types that are hard to keep on top of. Do we need all of these? Or could it be simpler?

For a marketer, it feels almost impossible to stay ahead of the game. It can also feel almost impossible to find the right partners to support these needs without having a ‘roster’ of 100 teams or agencies.

And where HAS all that talent gone. I assure you they are not gone. They have decided to stay in specialized groups where they enjoy staying focused and working amongst those who motivate and inspire them daily. Look at Verdes orWork & Co massive success stories & example.

“My idea people cant execute but my specialists don’t know ideas. 
I have to make it all work.” — CMO, Financial Tech Brand

For an agency, knowing the landscape and carving out where you want to fit is equally as important.

“Agencies are turning into two types –hunters that innovate and farmers who cultivate.” — Talent Executive

Today’s Agency Landscape

So, what is going on with the dynamic and fragmented landscape of agency services today.

All agencies want in on owning the strategic high ground.

  • Creative agencies lead with big ideas and want to control distribution
  • Media agencies lead with brand effectiveness and want to direct creative
  • Outlier agencies want in on upfront strategy and ideation

This creates a client dilemma — most importantly, who is the strategic partner for a brand they can rely on most? And from that strategic direction, when do they decide how to tap and integrate additional partners?

Today, it feels as though we’ve segmented our teams into generalist agencies, who own the vision and strategy and oversee contracted specialists and specialist agencies, who excel in execution or deeper thinking in core areas but struggle in insight generation and brand adherence upstream.

Both can be 3000 people or 3 people.

“The central challenge for agencies is to figure out who you are and what you want to be. If you are caught in the middle without an identity you don’t stand a chance.” - Agency President

We are at the biggest inflection point for agencies since the creation of the internet.

And with continued spend in Digital, it will remain one of the most fragmented & contentious segments.

All so often the AOR (who is often a Generalist) relationship can break down around the notion of digital:

  • Marketers: “they are our traditional agency, they don’t get digital.”
  • Agencies: “we need to create a digital extension for this TVC.”
“There is a profound lack of understanding within clients and agencies today about the intricacies of digital work and the multi-disciplined skills required to execute flawlessly.” — Agency President

On the one hand, shouldn’t every agency be digital?
On the other hand, digital can require quite a strong focus in analysis and technology.

And isn’t media also digital? That’s where the largest % of digital money goes. But to most… they just execute the BUY. And that is a whole other article :)

So, how does a digital agency classify their work today?

  • Enterprise Software platforms
  • Campaign Oriented activations
  • Micro-sites (yes, i said it)
  • Digital media assets (Content, Advertising )
  • Social engagement campaigns
  • Digital product & applications
  • Search
  • Email marketing & CRM
  • and the list could go on….

As we look to understand the entire landscape, perhaps all agencies will inherently become digital as they should, but the agencies that exist today will migrate & evolve to their respective corners.


What does all of this mean?

Group 1 : ART: Creative / Content

  • Strategy / Planning
  • Creative / Content
  • Product Development
  • Technology

Group 2: SCIENCE: Media / Analytic

  • Strategy / Planning
  • Media / Distribution
  • Data / CRM / Analytics

Highly creative agencies will move to group 1 — not meaning they cant do some of the other things to inform thinking — but it is not what you call them for.

Highly performance driven agencies will move to science. They can of course understand creative and content, but their focus is around the science and data.

Under those specialist and generalist agencies will find their respective place in the landscape.

For those who disagree, the question could then be — why should someone be both?

  • Should everyone be doing “VR?”
  • Should everyone be trying to sort out complex attribution models?
  • Should everyone be trying to build experiential activations?
  • Should highly creative shops be working to nail performance driven CRM campaigns

Keep in mind, people like to work with like minded folks. Not one person for each specialty at a generalist. That breeds a stagnant model with the typical “specialist guy” that everyone taps for everything — and he can’t do good work. Anyone worth their salt right now has run away from that and opened their own shop.

And they are thriving.

Meaning…

For Brands

Begin to think about how you want to organize your teams so you can maximize what you get from all parties with clear lines that help them understand how to integrate together. With a diverse set of agencies orchestrated by you to work in coordination, you can truly get to more elevated solutions to solve todays complex marketing challenges. Keep in mind, the best will aggregate together. A power house specialist group makes sense — they continue to learn and don’t become stagnant.

For Agencies

By knowing where you sit and your competitive set, you can help guide your positioning so prospective clients understand when to call and the right types of engagements. Look for white spaces in the market, because they do exist.

For Anyone reading this

There has been a lot of speculation around the marketplace and where agencies will “categorize” and what brands want to “buy.” This is simply one way to look at it. I’d love to further this thinking with anyone who has thoughts. Because it should be thought of differently and this is one way it could shake out. Please email me if interested lindsey@sundaydinner.com

Note: The quotes here are from an independent survey and study commissioned by brand and agency leaders in Early 2015.


Lindsey lives & works in Dumbo, Brooklyn. She runs Sunday Dinner. A company that exists to help brand marketers & independent agencies uncover new ways to work together for today’s modern business.

And yes, there are dinners. Check them out here.

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