Meet The Backscratchers: how a team of 'fixers' are challenging the traditional agency model

How a fragmented agency landscape is paving the way for a more simplistic model

Jody Orsborn was working for an LA music production company when the idea came to her to set up The Backscratchers. Founded in 2012, her agency connects brands and marketers with a network of freelancers and creatives on a project-by-project basis.

Now, in an industry that’s increasingly turning to consolidation to combat the fragmentation of the agency landscape, her simple idea is gaining momentum – attracting business from the likes of Unilever, Google and Spotify.

When Orsborn was head of marketing at Squeak E. Clean Productions she says she would be tasked with doing a little bit of everything: "We would put out records, produce music for ads and organise parties where we would convert carwashes into nightclubs and it meant that with all these different things going on I would always need people to turn to.

“I realised that there was a bit of gap in the industry for the role of 'fixer' – the kind of person you call up and say ‘I need this...’ Sometimes that’s an individual, sometimes it’s a team, sometimes it was an agency, sometimes I didn't even know what it was I needed; just a trusted name within the industry that you would take a problem to and they would figure it out.”

Now, Orsborn oversees a team of six dedicated ‘fixers’ who work with brands and agencies to connect them with a cherry-picked recommended network of freelancers, creators, speakers and more. Backscratchers takes a 15% cut of the total budget, leaving the person or team who produced the project with 85%.

One of the strangest requests Orsborn has received to date was to find a model who can play wineglasses to the tune of the Beach Boys. Her fixers have also been asked to source chocolate cars and arrange dinners, but many of the briefs are simple requests that would usually be filtered through an agency or done by brands in-house – like creating an animation or pulling together an experiential campaign.

Keeping it simple

Her original conundrum, however, is one that's likely to resonate with brand and agency marketers alike – both of which are pivoting towards simpler ways of working to yield results and save money in the process.

It's also given rise to new players in the marketing industry as the creative production model evolves - from Movidiam, a network that allows brands to search for filmmakers, to You & Mr Jones, which has sought to “bridge the gap between brands and technology” with investment in UGC platforms such as Mofilm.

While the full-service agency made a bit of a comeback a few years ago, the rise of digital over the past two decades has led to an increasingly splintered agency landscape. This explosion of choice has brought with it endless opportunities for marketers, but at the same time it has pulled them in dozens of different directions and ultimately pushed costs up across the board.

Over the past 12 months, conversations in the industry around how to alleviate some of this fragmentation, and the processes that come with it, have reached a tipping point. In the midst of greater demand for transparency from clients on where their budgets are actually going, the state of the current landscape has prompted a wave of cost-cutting measures from agencies.

Advertising giant WPP is among the holding networks integrating its agencies, folding its Possible Worldwide unit into Wunderman as part of ongoing efforts to rein in overheads and streamline client services. It has also merged MEC and Maxus to fund the expansion of Essence and improve its "speed of delivery".

Time-efficient

A cursory glance at Backscratcher's site reveals testimonials from brands which are clearly on board with its "get shit done" ethos, and its ability to crack project-based briefs quickly.

A recent study published by development firm RSW/US in the States noted that several marketers there had complained that agencies "haven't figured out how to be project-based," with 35% of agencies now noting that the majority of their work is project based compared to 20% the previous year. Across the pond, a 2015 study of 200 senior marketers released by MediaSense and ISBA found that 58% of UK respondents believed the number of agencies they worked with would decline, reflecting the mood of the industry.

Orsborn believes more companies like hers will emerge as the trend of brands requesting to work on one-off projects continues. But she concedes: “There’s still a place for the more traditional agency relationship, especially when we are talking about a global brand that needs to co-ordinate a campaign in 20 countries. There will always be space for the traditional retained agency for certain roles, and for certain sorts of activations.”

The practicalities of working outwith traditional agency models have not escaped Bajeng Cruz, who is global brand development manager at Unilever. She’s worked with Orsborn’s team across several projects in her category at the FMCG giant – spreads. The first project she briefed the team to work on was a digital video.

After failing to “crack it” with her incumbent creative agency, The Backscratchers came back with a number of freelance animators with varied styles and takes on the brief. “I chose one of them, and started working with her right away, finishing the video in two weeks, for a much lower fee,” says Cruz.

“This model has proven multiple times to be more cost- and time-efficient. Also: no retainer fees. In fast-moving uncertain times, this is certainly an advantage,” she adds.

Echoing Orsborn’s thoughts, Cruz says she’d still go to a traditional agency for projects that would “touch the core” of the Unilever brand, and for long-term brand communication strategies.

Connecting the dots

The freelancer boom - powered by the rise of the gig economy and platforms like Fivver and Upwork - isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Data from McKinsey Global recently found that adoption of online talent platforms and networks has the ability to increase the output of companies by up to 9%. The research also claims the freelancer boom could reduce the cost of recruiting talent and of human resources generally by as much as 7%.

On top of the obvious business benefits, Unilever's Cruz argues that outsourcing project work in this way can actually improve the creative process for brands. She sees the variation of routes or ideas that offered by connecting with freelancers as an upside, and suggests that traditional agencies seem to work on a template of knowing what makes their client tick, which "unfortunately gets outdated very fast". A model like The Backscratchers', she explains, often results in less predictable ideas.

“I think agencies can still revive their golden days by learning a few things from The Backscratchers. That could be a good evolution of their business model: a global scope with more networking, more cost- and time- efficiencies, less bureaucracy, and certainly less egos."

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Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

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