In recent years, there have been a series of trends that have had major impacts in the creative agency space:

  1. The rapid rise of business consultancies within the same space
  2. The sale or closure of several prominent digital studios
  3. The maturation of freelance as a way to bolster agency or in-house ranks across disciplines on a temporary basis
  4. The shift towards clients moving more of their work in-house in both marketing/creative and design

These trends reflect a newly-wider range of options that clients now have when it comes to staffing a project.

More talent is now available in more ways than ever before, creating a pressing need for agencies, freelancers, and all other designers-for-hire to both strengthen their marketing efforts and to be more holistically concerned with the user in design.

Where’s an Agency to Position Itself?

So how’s an agency supposed to position itself within these swirling waters?

For the conglomerates of the world, the conventional Agency-of-Record model (or some evolution of it) with a single agency in charge of most of or all campaign or creative work will likely always carry some appeal, given the scale and complexities inherent to both enterprises. Even with more than one agency partner in the mix, this scale simply suits like-with-like, and I don’t predict it going away anytime soon at that level.

For the early-stage start-ups and smaller businesses of the world, available capital is more precious than gold. While I’m a strong advocate of start-ups focusing on branding and design from Day One in order to separate themselves from their competition as they achieve product/market fit, the influx of highly capable freelance talent makes working with a series of contractors instead of hiring an agency a more conceivable option than in years past.

The In-Between

Which leaves “the in-between.”

Where does this leave the small-to-medium business with a marketing department of 1–4 people and a budget that need to stretch as far as it can while still ensuring quality and consistency?

Larger agencies could easily be too expensive for this budget range, compared to freelancers or specialist shops — particularly for ongoing needs. Individual freelancers work great in isolation, but it can sometimes be difficult to discern exactly who should be brought in when. Specialist shops are great for project-based work, but there’s a certain loss of brand continuity and institutional knowledge when a brand partner differs from the development partner who differs from the advertising partner who differs from the social partner who differs from…etc.

Welcome to the sweet spot, where a new agency model can bloom.

This is the opportunity where a trusted creative & strategic partner can provide outside assistance over time, ramping up at certain times and ramping down in others, without fully disengaging and without being strictly tied to project work.

This partner could also be responsible for bringing in targeted outside talent across a wide range of engagements, saving the client the headache of sourcing, evaluating, scoping and managing the various subcontractors.

From a process perspective, the client/agency contract would need to have more flexibility than a “do everything for us” AOR-like arrangement, but it would need to also provide a broader scope or mandate than just a series of individual projects.

From a client perspective, this allows them to know that there’s one “brand quarterback” streamlining communications to prevent duplication of efforts, and ensuring brand/voice/quality consistency — without being completely locked into a set-term, inflexible contract.

From an agency perspective, this allows them to meaningfully have a seat at the marketing or product strategy table over time in a way that fits within their client’s budgets, without needing to staff every single role on a full-time basis.

This also has the added benefit of positioning agencies at the point where business consultants often come in, while leaning into the unique strengths inherent to agencies. If you haven’t already read it, I’d strongly encourage you to read Jules Ehrhardt’s State of the Digital Nation 2020 article for much more information on the overlap between consultancies, holding companies, and agencies, alongside his proposals on how to navigate the waters.

From an individual’s perspective, it combines the flexibility and benefits of freelance with the cohesiveness of a full-time role, particularly if the individuals can provide more strategic advisory input with the agency over time, and not just be reduced to a set of hands to execute a given task.

From a service offering perspective, it allows the various methodologies and tools out there — sprints, agile, lean, waterfall, etc — to be applied to different projects at the right time, by aligning specialists to the techniques that facilitate their best work. Making a website? Lean into agile throughout. Making a brand identity? Start with a brand sprint, and then move more towards a waterfall process for creative development.

Provoking Questions

This article isn’t intended to provide every answer, but to start the gears turning and provoke internal questions across key stakeholders in the three main verticals:

  1. For clients: how could a nimbler, more flexible shop fit within your existing roster? What internal processes could be changed to potentially bring studios in sooner within the planning process, to best contribute their expertise to planning, resourcing, and general budget considerations?
  2. For the agency owner, how might your agency specialize in a way that isn’t tied to a particular industry or a particular service? If so, how does that look and sound like?
  3. For the individual, how can you start embracing a more flexible, T-shaped mindset? How can you start shifting your mentality away from looking at your task as just one specific vertical — e.g. graphic design — but increase your awareness of other related contexts as well — e.g. business needs and technical considerations — in order to provide more value to agencies?

I can’t speak in great detail to what other agencies are doing, although Communication Arts recently published an article on the new wave of agency start-ups, and two of Strategy Magazine’s Agencies of the Year for 2018 — Rethink and Zulu Alpha Kilo — embrace certain elements of this new, nimbler, trans-disciplinary way of building an agency. But I can speak to what we’ve been doing at Stack Creative.

In short, Stack has been operating as a “creative-first” shop that keeps art direction, copy and design at its core, but we work with a close-knit network of freelancers in the parallel fields of UX, development, and strategy. This lets us stay focused on the creative product but augment with the most closely related fields as needed, and it’s proven to be an effective boost that allows a young agency sprint out of the gate in terms of our service offering.

All Together Now

This creative business we’re in is not a zero-sum game. Freelancers, staff, clients, and even other agency owners are not your competition, but your complementaries. The pursuit of great work is not dependant on “winning” if someone else loses, but in truly taking stock of the problem from business, creative, and audience perspectives, and working in tandem with any and all project partners to get there in a way devoid of preciousness, ego or combativeness.

True collaboration takes many forms, and the evolution of these trends may not lead to the impending demise of the creative agency model as so many articles have stated, but instead provide the path towards a newer, more flexible model that’s based on collaboration, flexibility, and success — for all parties.