The Myth of the Full Service Agency


Title photo by Napoleon Dynamite.

Forbes published this article yesterday based on a survey of what CMO’s are saying about the future of their relationships with agencies. The crux of the article can be summarized by this particular quote:

“The majority of clients, 62%, polled by my marketing consultancy Avidan Strategies admit that they now view agencies as suppliers, and that today’s relationships are no longer a partnership.”

And to punctuate their point, they embedded this image right smack in the middle of their page:

Not the sign you want to see especially when you’re driving 200 mph.

It is a good, albeit pessimistic (especially if you work on the side I do) summary of a few of the trends fuelling the disruption in marketing over the past few years:

  • The speed of adoption of new channels and tactics compounding the amount and type of work a marketer needs to juggle
  • The array of technologies being adopted by marketers, each with its own ecosystem of vendors and specialists
  • The rise of the freelancer economy
  • And a general trend towards companies doing more digital marketing in-house especially for those where digital is a driving force for the company.

The message is clear — CMO’s aren’t happy with their agencies and are seeking alternative solutions.

While much of this article is aimed at the “traditional” advertising agencies, these trends impact everyone who has a business providing any type of marketing/technology services to these very marketers. This includes the digital agencies, the consultancies, the PR agencies, the social specialists, the systems integrators, the platform vendors, the branding shops, the holding companies…etc etc.

All sorts of “agencies” jumped into digital while the water was warm.

Photo by Caleb Morris

The pool has gotten pretty crowded, especially when many agencies claim to be “full service”. If you look at the typical agency website, you’ll see an ever-growing list of capabilities. In the 15 years I spent working at, competing with, and partnering with all types of agencies, it always amazes me how hard it is for an agency to say NO to an opportunity:

  • Can you devise an integrated national product launch campaign? — Yes!
  • Can you build an enterprise ecommerce store? — Sure!
  • Conduct usability testing in Asia? — No problem!
  • Produce long-form video content ?— Uh huh!
  • Localize our website across 80 countries? — You bet!
  • Target millennial mothers on Snapchat? — All the time!
Can you create 3D-printed drones to take selfies of a flashmob triggered by tweets — We’ll figure it out!

Image of Dronie by Twitter.

It seems that over the past couple years, in a quest to jump in on shifting marketing budgets, many agencies have responded by simply adding more capabilities to their service offering and more bullets to their websites to shore up their claims about being a “full service” agency.

Let’s just be clear, in this day and age of channels, tactics, technologies and a multi-dimensional consumer, being a “full service” agency is pretty much like pretending you’re a Liger.

For those of you who have never encountered a Liger in the wild or have seen Napoleon Dynamite, a Liger is a not just a lion, nor is it just a tiger but it is a combination of the best of both creatures. Plus it has magical powers to boot!
The world has changed and these days are behind us. Today, there is no such thing as a full-service agency. For those who are still hanging onto the myth, well good luck. Everyone else has or should pick a lane.
Agencies aren’t dead. A new type of partnership must emerge.
Despite all the sensationalist articles predicting the death and potential unemployment for everyone in the industry, I still believe strongly (and especially in these times), that marketers do and will always need good partners. Marketers have their own challenges and despite the threat of increasing in-house teams, much like the agency business, they cannot be experts at everything.

It is a time for both marketers and agencies to focus on what their core strengths are.

Only then can we be better partners.


The shameless plug on Why We Started a New Agency

We built Modern Craft specifically for the modern marketer who is looking to build a brand in the digital age. We do this by providing sound direction and detailed plans on how to evolve the brand, which channels and tactics to pursue, and what infrastructure to invest in. We don’t solve problems with shallow tips or vague listicles, or by pushing the latest or flashiest piece of technology. We don’t proclaim to be gurus or visionaries, we’re just a group of smart and experienced guys who like to help clients tackle meaty challenges.

By Randy Siu, co-founder and business lead at Modern Craft