How Outsourcing Media Execution Strengthens an Agency’s Team

In Part One of this series, we explored the reasons that many independent agencies have begun to move away from the trend toward in-housing media execution to embrace outsourcing through partnerships. In this installment, we talk with several agency leaders to look at the impact that outsourcing through partnerships has had on both their agencies and their people.

Back in his agency’s formative years, recalls Sam Burn, principal, strategy, of the Birmingham, Alabama-based agency Cayenne, the partners added people­--and specialties--as they needed them to meet client expectations.

Cayenne started out as “just a creative shop,” Burn says, but “quickly learned that while the ideas are fantastic, somebody’s got to see them.” So the three partners added media, “although none of us were necessarily experts in media” and although media “was getting more complex.” What Burn and his partners soon realized was that, as he puts it, “I understand what I want media to do. And I understand how to leverage media to achieve our strategies, but mastering the ever-changing granularity of media execution is neither my strength nor the area in which I can best help my company grow.” Learning media, Burn realized, was “not where I needed to focus my efforts to build a business. But I definitely needed somebody that I trust.”

At first Cayenne followed the path so many other independent agencies often take, bringing a media team in-house. They hired, Burn says, “fantastic people,” but they ran into a challenge: “These fantastic people were always overloaded with the new and the next. Media was becoming an arms race. Who could have the best technology? Who could have the hyper-focused talent to execute the job?” And this problem was complicated by changing client needs. Hiring a “super specialist,” Cayenne found, was great, so long as there was work to keep them busy, “but you can’t have a super specialist making a lot of money sitting in a corner twiddling their thumbs.” What Cayenne came to understand was that “we were either overworking generalists or we were underworking specialists.”

The answer, Cayenne realized, was outsourcing through a dedicated partnership—working with an outside firm that could provide the “super specialists” when they were needed, while Cayenne retained control over strategy and relationships.

“Smart Brains”

What this approach, this move away from in-housing, provides, adds Evann Bishop, executive vice president at the Atlanta-based media agency Conquer, is that “it really gives us a deeper bench” to respond to the “rapid change” overtaking the industry. Jordan Person, managing partner at New York City-based Town Hall, elaborates, noting that “the more smart brains you can have around a table thinking about your business, the better.”

This access to a brain trust, if you will, provides independent agencies like Cayenne, Conquer, and Town Hall with a number of benefits.

First, of course, there’s the access to talent. As Burn explains, describing Cayenne’s relationship with Pathlabs, its media execution partner, “They have a huge talent pool and are able to keep specialists trained and up to date.”

This access, adds Ly Tran, founder of the Austin-based Stiletto Collective, broadens not only the agency’s capabilities, but also its ability to think creatively. The exposure to people outside the agency, she says, provides “all these different and varied experiences that can spark something,” as compared to when “you bring everything in-house, and that’s all you’re doing. It might be hard to see something new if you’re living and breathing it day in, day out.”  Burn expands on this idea: “We believe in the advantage of having diverse points of view,” he says. “When you become too focused, you can lose sight of the things you can learn from the problems others face.” Creativity, he claims, comes from “dissimilar ideas colliding in your mind.”

Saving Money, Maintaining Values

Media execution partnerships also save money, agency heads point out. Not only did it allow David Heimlich, a partner in the Los Angeles-based The Blossom Project, to avoid the overhead that would have resulted from building out a full media department, but, at Cayenne, it allowed the partners to bring in “a rockstar” in the media world who, Burn says, “we probably couldn’t afford if we didn’t have the execution help that Pathlabs provides.”

Perhaps most importantly, agency heads note that outsourcing also benefits in-house employees and allows the agencies to stay true to their values.

“We never want to be the agency where we sign a client and hire a bunch of people and then, if that client leaves, we have to let people go,” Bishop says. “We’ve never run our agency like that, and we never will.” With a media execution partnership, “we have the ability to have the headcount we need when things come up really quickly and to be really strategic about changes within our internal agency.”

Bishop’s boss, Conquer President Brent Barbee, adds, “We’re very careful in our hiring processes. We’ve been able to not lay anyone off even throughout COVID, and because of the way we model ourselves and our commitment to not being the agency that has to float people in and out according to account load,” Conquer is able to keep its core team and still satisfy “our ambitious growth goals.”

At the same time, Barbee notes, this “gives our people a little room to breathe, to focus more, and to be able to go home at the end of the day and rest a little and come back the next.”

Retention: Playing Both Ways

If supplementing the core media team through an outsourcing partnership broadens the core team’s reach while improving its focus and removing some pressure, it also has a critical impact on retention.

“As a leader,” Barbee says, “it’s important to keep your finger on the question of burnout. Are we close to diminishing return with someone’s work because we’re piling on too much?”  And that tendency to overload through in-housing is often complicated by requiring employees to move not only outside their comfort zones but even beyond their own expertise.

But retention plays both ways. While outsourcing partnerships allow agencies to both keep employees happy and balance their workloads, it also cushions the agencies themselves should employees decide to move on.

During COVID, recalls Marc Stryker, vice president of channel management at Salt Lake City-based Penna Powers, “I was struggling to keep people employed here because they kept moving on. We would train them, and five months later they would automatically be very valuable on the market to other companies, who were willing to pay a lot more. I was losing all these people after spending so much training them. It was getting really difficult to stay ahead of the trends and make sure we had it all in-house.” The question he faced was “how to take care of our clients and give them what they deserve?” The answer: outsourcing to a media execution partner.

Bishop’s experience has been similar. During COVID, she says, “finding talent, people jumping, everything became a bit more fragile with all agencies.” Conquer’s outsourcing partnership with Pathlabs, she says, “gave us that stability back, not only from a leadership perspective, but from our teammates’ perspective.”

And those teammates don’t see their outsourced partners as disconnected vendors, but rather, as Heimlich puts it, “as an extension of us.” Burn agrees. “We see a symbiotic relationship,” he says. “It’s a collaborative process between imaginative and passionate people. That’s what we were really looking for.” They are, he concludes, “integral to our team and to our company growth.”

In the next installment, we’ll look at the impact that outsourcing media execution has on an independent agency’s access to tools and technology—and what that means for the agency’s success.

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