Challenger Start-Ups -- The New Answer To Mega Brands Culling Back To Mega Agencies?

It's the question on everyone's lips in digital marketing -- will the niche agencies flourish or is it now all about big brands contracting mega agencies? You could certainly be forgiven for assuming that the days of the boutique operation with a particular specialty that a big agency doesn't feel competent are threatened. Just talking to people in and around the London scene, the confidence that small agencies were indispensable seems to have waned as marketers have noticed big brands seem to be simplifying their rosters by dealing with fewer agencies.

It's certainly what some of the mega brands are actively talking about. You only have to look at the cull of P&G's roster to see which way the wind is blowing.

I was talking to a friend who has just opened up a new agency, having been part of a team that had a successful exit a couple of years ago to a major agency. Now that they are free agents again, they're hoping to repeat the process, but admit that it doesn't appear to be as simple a task as last time. When big agencies didn't have the digital competencies they needed, it was just a tad easier to sell your services or even be used direct by a large brand that wanted specialists focussed solely on a particular discipline. Now that the large agencies have bought enough boutiques to ensure their services are more rounded, it seems there is less scope for the enterprising start-up. Combine this with the trend for big brands to start buying in expertise and technology to run digital marketing in-house, and small agencies face a proverbial double whammy.

Thus it didn't come as a huge surprise for the digital marketing society SoDA to report that just over one in four brands now work with no agencies at all, nearly a third work with just one and just a quarter are working with fewer than last year.

Rosters have been simplified and work has been brought in-house. So it's great news for agencies that believe they can become the lead -- or even the only -- digital marketing agency for a brand. Interestingly, at the same time, nearly two in three brands are reporting that they are investing heavily in digital platforms and tools as well as increasing their capabilities to gain customer insights through improved analytics.

In fact, if there was one glimmer of new hope to come from the latest research it is that brands see their biggest need to reach out to new partners lies in analytics where they admit that their own skills sets are not proficient as they would like. This has to be the area where niche, boutique shops can flourish.

Of course, there is a very obvious point that small agencies can get themselves such a great reputation for being extremely good at what they do that agencies still want to work with them -- or perhaps more likely and without adding to a client's roster, agencies will contract them to carry out work on their campaigns.

A third route, could be all the more interesting and it's certainly one I know is being explored. For want of a better term, it would be the "upsetting the apple cart" approach and going to market with some very powerful data-handling capabilities and programmatic tools with the message that a big agency will not take as good care of a brand as a smaller rival. Those who have worked at large agencies will know about viewability and click-fraud levels, as well as campaign charges, and will be making that a very clear part of their pitch. 

The problem is, as bold as it might be, it runs counter to the trend of picking a large, established agency to handle digital marketing and then leave them to pick partners they feel they need to work with or even bring in to the fold. Pointing out the problems of the big boys is not the best way to get their patronage to work for their large clients.

Now the large agencies are pretty much "tooled up" when it comes to digital marketing -- through smart hiring, buying the right tech and investing in the right smaller agencies -- the opportunities for niche agencies are going to presumably become slimmer and slimmer. 

Analytics appears to be an area where there is still scope for a boutique shop -- but I'd caution that in my experience the big agencies are investing in hugely expensive Big Data platforms and so the window could soon close on that new opportunity. 

So does that leave start-ups with little to lose by taking the upstart, start-up approach and rattling some cages as they outline their different approach to large agencies. 

Given that it's only a matter of time until brand and agencies have filled their data analytics requirements, it would appear so.

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