The adage, “If you try to be all things to all people…,” is appropriately applicable to the world of advertising and digital agencies.
Having spent my entire career solving complex client challenges, the one I’ve been most frustrated with and unable to solve for exists within the industry that I’ve worked within for the past 2+ decades. The challenge itself is simple; yet, the desire / willingness to solve for it is an enormous impediment.
Let’s dig in a bit. There’s a historical context that frames this challenge. First, there are no “standards” for what defines an advertising or digital agency. Unlike other industries where there are certifications, standards, guidelines, etc., neither of these industries are governed. With this in mind, the barrier to entry is a laptop, software, Internet connection and a human being. Those are literally the only barriers. Items such as errors and omission (E&O) insurance aren’t necessary, at least unless a client requires it. Individuals leave agencies valued at $B’s and start their own competing directly within days. It’s that simple. So, the first issue regarding “standards” or lack thereof is driven by the mere fact that there are such limited barriers to entry. The concept of “to each his own” applies in this situation. Each “agency” has its own approach, capabilities, experience and philosophy. The term “full service,” which will get discussed later, is the clarion call of the issue of lack of consistency.
What defines advertising and digital? Decades ago, it was possible to provide a relatively consistent definition. So, what changed? First: new channels, new capabilities, blended formats, cross pollination of skills, etc. Second: the buying spree. Global agency holding companies with $B valuations and significant financial resources began buying companies across categories with a specific focus on “digital.” In the early stages, this meant the acquisition of companies such as Critical Mass, Agency.com, Modem Media, Organic, etc. Once the first wave of what was considered at the time to be “pure” digital agencies was complete, the second wave began with acquisitions of boutique digital agencies focused on experience — typically highly creative, leveraging Flash. Many of these companies were part of The Society of Digital Agencies (SoDA), https://www.sodaspeaks.com/. The third wave included acquisitions of social agencies with a focus on social media strategy, behavioral targeting, influencer marketing, media placement, etc. The fourth wave represented technology companies with specific areas of focus including Salesforce, ServiceNow, Adobe, Sitecore, Watson, etc. Within this wave, specialty technology companies focused across the spectrum of data, analytics and social platforms were acquired to round out offerings. The technology focused acquisitions were, in many instances, more costly and ultimately challenging post integration.
The foundation is in place at this point for why “inconsistency is the only consistency.” Acquisitions are challenging, to say the least. Among the core issues are:
- Vastly different solution offerings (e.g. A broadcast ad production vs. e-commerce machine learning or app development, etc.).
- Different skills requirements for identical titles.(e.g. A Creative Director in broadcast or print production is very different than a Creative Director delivering an app development initiative; the same applies to Art Directors, Copywriters, etc.).
- Creative roles are typically more technical in digital than advertising, while digital creative roles may not have similar experience (e.g. narrative storytelling, etc.).
- Different methodologies and processes. This one represents the most challenging of all of the issues. We can discuss the difference in scoping, project management, account management, post integration culture, alignment of solutions, etc., but the reality is that this one is incredibly fractured and difficult. Which methodology is going to be used — Company A, company B, or candidly, the new hire who came from Razorfish or Deloitte, etc.?
- Competing factions within that drive specific unintended outcomes including internal competition for revenue, less skilled individuals being assigned to work based on P&L’s or client “ownership” by practice or operating division, etc.
Agencies are essentially “containers” of individuals hired for specific talents. Few agencies invest significantly in solution development or proprietary IP; rather, they acquire companies with pre-existing capabilities. As containers, the difference between what an agency claims as capability and what it actually has the ability to deliver are distinct differences. As talent leaves, offerings atrophy and change based on available talent along with a willingness to adhere to standards previously defined for a solution. Over the years, having experience working post-acquisition in an agency holding company and having worked within “roll-up” agencies, the level of inconsistency is incredibly challenging. For example:
- It’s possible that Project Management philosophies and supporting SaaS tools are different within an agency project by project or division by division (e.g. media planning vs. web development, vs. social vs. broadcast, etc.). This becomes even more challenging when a company attempts to assess the capabilities of agencies. The difference within and between agencies can be astoundingly different.
- Methodologies are uniquely distinct. The different perspectives of what constitutes, by definition, a methodology can be incredibly frustrating. Examples include: a. Waterfall vs. Agile, b. Scrum vs. Kanban, c. Lean vs. Extreme, d. Design Thinking vs. whatever an agency interprets Design Thinking to be — call it highly custom. Each of these methodologies have a formal, standardized, industry accepted framework and certifications in certain instances. The reality is that few agencies actually understand the pure version of these methodologies, so interpretation is rampant across the industry. Add to this the fact that most agency methodologies are predicated on a select few individuals that develop and maintain the detail regarding execution. As agency turnover occurs, typically in the 20–25% range per year, the methodology vacillates.
- Talent is uniquely distinct with experience defining what constitutes a solution or offering. This may be the most important aspect of inconsistency. A digital agency can be any combination of the following:
- An engineering focused systems integrator (SI) capable of delivering Adobe AEM, Sitecore, Salesforce, Oracle, IBM, etc. solutions.
- A social media offering focused solution provider focused on the use of Sprinklr, HubSpot, Meltwater, Hootsuite, etc.
- A cross channel data and analytics focused provider leveraging , Domo, Oracle, TIBCO, Cognos, Google, Dumbstruck, etc.
- A web development agency focused on WordPress, Drupal, etc. with CX, Content and Creative capabilities, typically focused on smaller landing page, microsite experiences.
- A low code / no code focused agency designed to deliver solutions that support marketing with limited IT involvement.
A “full service” agency, which by definition means they can deliver all communication solutions (e.g. PR, Digital, Strategy, Analytics, Systems Integration, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Broadcast, Outdoor, Print, Analytics, Experiential, Media Buying, Shopper Marketing, CRM / Loyalty, etc.) is among the most challenging to understand as it relates to capabilities and the associated inconsistencies. The irony in the full service category is that firms with less than 20 colleagues call their agency full service as do 5K+ person agencies and now management consultancies such as Deloitte, Accenture, etc. also consider themselves full service as they acquire agency assets. The breadth of issues with consistency in an industry that’s incredibly wide and deep is immeasurable. This inconsistency applies to solutions, methodologies, processes and internal operations.
The reality of the agency model, whether digital or advertising (aka traditional), is unfortunate. As a “container” of talent, the measures of operational success are typically focused on two parameters: Creativity and Economics. These are two juxtaposed measures with incredible tension between the competing factions.
If you’ve ever wondered why a billboard along a highway is unreadable and you ask yourself why a company would waste money on something that’s so poorly executed, the reality is it was most likely designed by a creative team (Creative Director, Art Director, Copywriter and Designer) that was assigned based on their availability, (low chargeability) not their years of experience. This experience should include the science of distance, motion / speed of vehicles, size of fonts, graphics, etc. but unfortunately the individuals didn’t even take the time to look up the industry guidelines.
In the end, the inconsistency across agencies within a defined category and types of agencies across categories is why the concept of Request for Proposals (RFPs) is such a challenge for companies. Comparing what, on the surface, may appear comparable is incredibly difficult as the inconsistency will outweigh the consistency. On the other side of that same equation exists the agency search consultancies who do their best to understand the nuances while not living within the solution providers day to day and facing the same challenges as their clients, which is fascinating and context for a future article.
What’s the answer to the issue of inconsistency? The reality is we’ve reached a point where qualifications and certifications are necessary in order to provide comparable standards. Whether these are developed by the 4A’s or an industry consortium is to be determined, but standards are eventually coming. Frustration over quality, lack of capabilities or issues with depth of capabilities, whether intentional or unintentional and deceptive as it relates to actual experience all taint and stain the advertising and digital agency landscape. So, what can a company do to determine whether the agency they’re evaluating can deliver a solution at the level of quality, effectiveness, investment and timeliness they desire? I’ve addressed this item in Why the *#^&! Do We Tolerate RFPs? https://medium.com/@tradecorpatl/why-the-do-we-tolerate-rfps-96d764887bab?source=friends_link&sk=cb8a409f175d5f541839d76fb40a7757. If you want the synopsis, the “solve” is based on a defined real-world case collaboration between clients and agencies. A single day exercise that’s designed to demonstrate methodology, process, strategic insights and outcomes and cultural fit.
Share your thoughts and perspectives. Let’s collectively solve this challenge.
You can reach me on Twitter — @digitalquotient or on LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/bobmorris/ if you want to discuss this topic.