Ask a client what they want from a direct marketing agency – or any other agency – and they’ll probably mention ‘ideas’ and ‘creativity’ somewhere in their reply. Ultimately, when they take on an agency, clients want to have direct access to the thinkers and creators behind fantastic marketing strategies that deliver to the bottom line. And so they should.
Why then is the marketing media heralding a return to the ‘full service’ approach? Doesn’t the strike rate for the best, most creative ideas increase substantially when generated from independent agencies where the culture encourages more risk taking than at a larger network?
What’s more, the familiar horror stories about internal communications and politics at full service networked agencies lead to a lack of focus on the client’s business. So often this leads to campaigns that either bomb out entirely or deliver such mixed messages that even the client is confused, let alone its customers.
Too often with such a network, the client loses control and the holding agency monopolises the focus of activity. Marketing is core to business success, so it is essential that the client is in the driving seat to ensure that it remains in tune with corporate objectives and delivers relevant results.
Yet despite the inherent problems of a full service network, it’s also apparent that when agencies operating on a roster do so in silos the clients run the risk of patchy successes that don’t quite gel together to achieve the optimum overall results. So what’s the best way forward?
An integrated partnership approach where agencies retain their independence and report to the client directly, but work together with shared goals and objectives, is by far the most successful. The client retains control and individual agencies are clear about the role they play. As long as egos are left at the door, this is the route to creating the most powerful combined strategy where direct marketing, public relations, sales promotions and advertising professionals each bring their own specialist skills to the mix.
Of course, some of the problems associated with networked agencies could potentially apply to partner agencies. Clear lines of communication, strong client control and a willingness to respect the specialisms of each partner are a prerequisite. Such attitudes eradicate any potential for each partner to lose confidence and trust in the process, and ultimately each other. Issues only tend to arise when an agency attempts to multi-task outside of its core discipline and be all things to all people.
This works best when the client defines clear boundaries and creates a genuine forum for introductions between partners. Often these organisations will earn one another’s respect and confidence, and subsequently they may go on to recommend each other’s services to other clients. A simple network of trusted partners who are confident in their own abilities and admire their associates makes for a successful team.
The secret for success is for all partners to believe in each other’s core skills. Agencies should prepare to challenge and be challenged – in fact, almost to demand this – so that the group knows it has really pushed itself to the limits and achieved the best possible result.
The selection process for an integrated set of agencies should also rid us of the whole ‘pitch list’ farce. The client simply needs to set a clear brief and objectives, and stick to them. At the early stages, a short chemistry meeting should be set up so that the agencies can see whether their cultural differences or similarities will lead to great ideas and dynamism, or whether they’ll be at each other’s throats. It’s important that all the agencies together provide the right combination of ingredients to create the marketing strategy the client needs. If necessary, one agency can take a lead role, but this should still be driven by the client and understood by all partners so that they act less territorially, allowing for a much smoother, more productive arrangement.
Naturally, it is important that the partner agencies meet face to face on a regular basis, but this doesn’t mean that they must all be from the same geographical area. Once a quarter is often enough for a regular full-blown planning meeting, and provided effective communication channels are established, all agencies should be aware of each other’s priorities and timescales for activity.
An example of where this has worked to good effect is the 2004 re-brand of Alliance & Leicester Commercial Bank. The bank identified core prospects for lending and deposit account banking via PH Group and this work had a dramatic impact on marketing activity across all disciplines. Agencies worked hand-in-hand with the client’s internal partners to help redefine the market and direct marketing, public relations and advertising were used to good effect, positioning the bank as a serious challenger to the ‘big four’.
We all know that more sophisticated, focused communications are increasingly necessary as customers become more savvy and demanding. Clients and agencies need to take a braver stance on investing and testing alternative approaches within disciplines based on statistically valid samples to find more relevant methods of communicating to generate a higher ROI. This will leave clients in a far stronger position to roll out campaigns across a good mix of channels and disciplines with appropriately tailored messages based on sound knowledge. And their businesses will benefit from the matching of customer insight to targeting and execution.
The fundamental premise is simple: When experts work together it is possible to achieve joint successes for the overall benefit of the client. A combined marketing effort with independent but integrated agencies delivers a far more compelling proposition to the customer. The partnership approach is the ideal way to harness the best experts within advertising, direct marketing, public relations and sales promotion to deliver outstanding results that make real impact.
Moving from a segregated to an integrated approach will take effort – the shift from an evolutionary to a revolutionary mindset is never an easy process and there are bound to be casualties along the way. However, we are beginning to see movements towards this way of marketing, and the best clients and agencies are thinking about more strategic use of data to gain real customer insight, and recognise the importance of creating well-integrated campaigns that target the relevant people, with appropriate messages, via the best media. Marketers live or die by what they deliver to a client’s business in the long term, so it is in everyone’s interest to develop coherent strategies for clients’ sales and brands.
Every agency has its own strengths, but it is impossible to be a master of all trades and maintain both the level of intellect and personal touches necessary for continued success. Full service agencies will always have a weakness somewhere in their network, so the client can achieve far more value by cherry-picking the independent agencies most suited to the job. This way of doing business will sort the wheat from the chaff, as only the best people in the industry will have the confidence to work hand-in-hand with other agencies. Nevertheless, in the long term we will see a leaner, meaner, more inspired marketing industry where client is king.