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As clients demand simplicity, is integration the only way forward for agencies?


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

October 18, 2023 | 8 min read

Marketing clients say they want straightforward, fast services from agencies. We straw-polled indie and network shops in the US, UK and Europe to see what solutions they’d come up with.

People sat around a table talking in a meeting

We asked agency bosses across the industry about how they’d met client demands for simplicity / Unsplash

Most brand marketers place a premium upon speed, agility and simplicity, but only a minority believe they’re getting that from their agency partners. That’s according to a recent WFA survey and, taken together with the merger of Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R, it’s clear this question is still one agency businesses are attempting to answer.

Collapsing agencies into a single, colossal business (and ditching centuries-old brand equity in the process) might be one route to providing simplicity, but it isn’t the only answer.

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Alternative solutions in play are freelance networks, alternative client service team structures and embedding marketers in agency teams.

“I don't know a client in the world that didn't want the thing they asked for yesterday. It’s part of the game we play these days,” says Rory Gilbride, co-founder of indie creative studio Insiders. He says it relies on freelance talent so that “we aren't restricted by the people inside the agency walls.”

Danielle Aldrich, senior vice-president of partnerships at Omnicom shop Organic, argues agencies can “flatten” internal team structures and “replace traditional static staffing with flexible staffing models that provide broader access to resources, when and how you need them,” to provide a simpler, faster service.

Jax Ostle Evans, Stink

Similarly, at London digital agency Stink Studios, managing director Jax Ostle Evans (above) says “breaking down barriers” between traditional disciplines such as creative and production has helped.

“We’re seeing firsthand how breaking down these barriers enables our teams to deliver impactful campaigns and digital experiences, more efficiently and effectively. Clients are also demanding a more iterative working process. Gone are the days of fortnightly big reveals. Clients want real-time collaboration to get to solutions faster.”

That doesn’t have to mean leaning on outside talent. Mike Molnar, managing partner at creative shop Glow, says his colleagues aim to provide a straightforward service by mimicking the client’s organization.

“We tailor and build our services, team, and approach around each client, navigating their unique structure and adapting to their process versus asking the client to change to fit our service model. By nature, that is an agency being agile, and with that comes speed,” he says.

Bringing clients into the room (or team Slack) is a potential solution for Jon Ruppel, executive director of technology and creative innovation at Team One. The Publicis Groupe digital design shop works with clients such as Lexus and Ritz-Carlton, and involves brand-side staffers in its cross-disciplinary squads.

“We believe that embedding clients in our Agency Scrum teams is a game-changer for web/application work,” he explains. “Working side-by-side allows our marketing clients to be involved in every decision and see the hard work and collaboration that goes into the development of their product.”

Some decision-making is delegated to these teams, too. “We believe in lean leadership--attaching executive stakeholders to Scrum teams to oversee or coach, but never to interfere in the day-to-day decision-making process. This approach empowers our teams to take ownership,” he says.

Inevitably, some agencies hope the emergence of AI tools will help meet this goal. Mike Eckstein, executive vice-president of marketing services at Chicago digital agency Fusion92 says: “AI is now creating exponential change across the board from creative development, production, media, and optimization. The pressure is high to evolve the offerings, but there will be big rewards for those of us at the forefront.”

Automation more broadly can be applied to review and reporting processes, says Chris Kubbernus, founder of indie Copenhagen social agency Kubbco. “Our automation efforts have helped and we expect to do more. We’re focused on automated emails and messages when content and campaigns are ready for review and business processes like reporting and briefing connected via forms, Zapier, and other tools – all to avoid being bogged down with admin,” he says.

“While you have to invest in speed, you must also constantly evaluate what makes sense to automate and what doesn't. It’s important not to over-robotize things - we still need to be human.”

At digital shop Cubaka, partnerships director Alistair Reid says that agencies can manage expectations better among clients as they reel them in.

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“There’s work to be done in setting expectations between brands and agencies,” he says. “Service levels must align at contract stage with built-in agency flex time. If reactivity is a priority, a solid strategy that factors in ‘planned reactivity’ content is a good starting point. An agreement in the contract must clearly define our role and the clients’ role in the SLA and provide the foundations for flexibility and agility that we often find clients are lacking from their current agencies.”

jess vahsholtz

Jef Loeb, chief creative officer at San Francisco indie Brainchild Creative, echoes his view. “Creative, message discipline, media value, and the risk level all suffer when speed becomes a consistent demand,” he tells The Drum. “The best way, come review time, to avoid being downchecked as unresponsive on this score is to have the backbone to push back as antithetical to the client’s best interest, when it’s truly unnecessary, and come through like stars when it is.”

As well as casting the die early in client relationships, Florida indie PPK’s Jess Vahsholtz (above) advocates checking back quickly and often. “Set the table for re-prioritization throughout the year to enable rush work,” he says. “Keep your promises. And always communicate – this is how clients can feel the value of our work, in a craft where speed can often be an enemy.”

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