Commentary

Pick One Horse In The Race -- Or Else Even When You Win, You Lose

Having previously spent almost 18 years on the agency side of the business, with many of those years spent handling consumer advertising for a number of the biggest brands in the world, I think I am qualified to say this: It’s a bad idea to split your business between multiple agencies.

There are far too may examples of this “strategy,” but I have never actually seen them result in a strong, effective, painless execution.  Too often clients will have an agency review and, concluding that there are strengths in more than one of the agencies they examined, decide on the “best of all worlds” scenario.  In some cases that means dividing media and creative, planning and buying, or even digital and traditional. These are actually situations I can sort of understand, though I may not like them.  In more extreme cases clients go so far as to split up media strategy from media buying across all platforms, then separate out digital and some of the more focused efforts – all going with different agencies.  This can be a recipe for disaster, as I know firsthand.

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I understand the option to split media and creative, at least in theory.  These are distinctly different disciplines and there are truly only a handful of shops in the U.S. that do both really, really well.  I can also grasp the desire to split digital from traditional, although in that instance I think you have to let the digital shop do both media and creative and the traditional shop should be awarded the same responsibilities for offline. 

Digital does have a different skill set when it comes to understanding technology, but that line is starting to blur. I foresee a world in the next five years where the stand-alone digital shop is less and less the norm, with all efforts being brought under a single roof.   In the meantime, if you have any hope of being successful, you (the client) need to establish boundaries and manage budgets accordingly.  There’s no room for discussion, or you open up Pandora’s Box.

I personally think if you make the decision to go to an agency with your business, you should have the nerve to go all in with someone.  Having all those ducks under one roof enables your agency partner to truly effect change.  They can drive the message AND the medium.  They can use their resources properly to execute a campaign that conveys your message to the right people, at the right time.  This hand-in-hand ability to refine and revise a strategy works better than a disjointed one that requires offline meetings to determine next steps.

I know the concept of separation is that competition breeds innovation and creativity, but in fact it rarely does.  What it breeds is infighting for budgets and an unease between your partners.  They spend more time trying to “manage” one another and jockeying for position than they do brainstorming ideas and innovating.  As the customer with two agencies, you can spend 3x the standard amount of your time in status meetings, listening to presentations that are likely disjointed as one agency proposes a tactical idea that supposedly builds on what the other agency came up with, but in reality steers you in a different direction, taking you down a rabbit hole leading nowhere.

I once worked in an environment where there was a lead planning agency, a media buying agency and our team of digital strategy and planning/buying for media, as well as separate agencies for two other divisions within marketing.  The planning agency routinely was incapable of allocating money to digital, even though it was one of the top two performers, and the traditional buying shop kept buying digital media, even though it was not in their purview to do so.  This happened because all of the agencies were paid on commission, which means they were only incentivized to spend money, not to act in the interests of the customer.  The client never spoke up, creating an environment of “pirates” where every agency was out for themselves – hijacking budgets and driving different agendas. The result was disjointed, the efforts were nominally effective and the agencies ended up being consolidated after three years of this fruitless exercise.  Along the way people were fired as well. The whole fiasco should never have happened.

I understand the rationale for breaking up your agency responsibilities -- I really do --  but if I could leave you with a single piece of advice I would say, “make a decision.” Pick one agency, give them your heart and give them your head and work with them.  If you selected them because you think they can do the job, then actually give them the job to do.

5 comments about "Pick One Horse In The Race -- Or Else Even When You Win, You Lose".
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  1. Michael Hubbard from Media Two Interactive, April 10, 2013 at 11:59 a.m.

    I get the theory behind your article, but I can tell you that we're (Media Two Interactive) living proof that you can have multiple agencies involved. Almost 2 years ago we did away with our "full service" approach and went back to our roots (media buying only). We made this move based on the strength of our relationships with other agencies. Lead agencies provided the branding & design, and we provide the unparalleled execution. It is VERY difficult to be GREAT at everything, and in this type of a relationship - we don't have to be. We are great at delivering ROI, and our partners are great at what they do (PR, promotions, branding, design, etc). It all works IF you have the right people at the table. The problems you've eluded to above strike me as greed issues, or even cultural issues within each agency, or dare I say, an unclear path provided by the marketer as to what each agencies role is to be? That said - they're all valid, and they all happen - but I don't think it means you scrap trying to work with "best-in-class" across each discipline - I just think it takes more effort on all parts to be done correctly. Just my opinion of course...

  2. Davida Tretout from Go2Chic, April 10, 2013 at 12:18 p.m.

    Like many strategies- the relationship lays in the strengths of communication, details & vision being fully vetted. Sometimes one horse gets the win, sometimes it's better to hedge your bets. The race determines the outcome!

  3. Kevin Lee from Didit, April 10, 2013 at 12:48 p.m.

    LOL. Three years ago I would have argued the point. But I realized for many (not all) clients (of www.Didit.com) they wanted one stop shopping as long as the primary service they were most interested in was best-in-breed (in my case search marketing). So, I bought another agency and made an equity investment in a second to assure that if clients wanted one stop shopping they'd get really great results from everything beyond search (social, display, media buying, creative, site development and even offline creative services).

  4. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, April 11, 2013 at 8:17 a.m.

    One agency for all products, all channels, and all countries? For B2B, B2C and partner relations? The same agency for your big established brands and the little promising startups you just bought? No plan B? Possibly it might work for the right size and shape of company, but in general that's nuts.

  5. Cory Treffiletti from FIS, April 15, 2013 at 4:40 p.m.

    When you write an article every week for over 11 years, you tend to hear a lot of feedback; some of it good, some of it bad. I read what people write in response to my columns and in many cases I get direct emails from people. Sometimes they write their responses in other online forums, but in just about every possible case I end up hearing about it.

    Last week’s article got a LOT of that kind of discussion going.

    In my last column I made the statement that when a brand picks more than one agency to handle its business, they lose because they create a situation that breeds agency infighting. I stand by that statement, but I feel the need to clarify because its clear that many people completely missed the point of the piece.

    For a multiple agency situation to truly succeed, the customer needs to take an active role in strategic planning and they need to establish guidelines. If they don’t then they set everyone up to fail. You cannot rule in a league of mercenaries. You cannot establish order when herding cats. You cannot expect rank and file organization when you lead an army of pirates. At some point every agency in that relationship has a goal to grow their business and that happens by decreasing the business somewhere else. The client's responsibility is to take the guesswork out, lay the framework for the relationship and parameters by which everyone operates.

    Too often people miss the point because they hear what they want to hear. This means they are less open to hearing the other side of the issue. That’s just too bad.

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