The age of the single discipline agency is dead

“I suspect the market will start to divide into those agencies that are happy to be tactical test labs for other people’s thinking and those with ambitions to inform their clients’ design strategy and marketing agenda” (Tom Wood, Foolproof, in NMA)

I agree with this assessment.

The age of the single discipline PR, social media or digital agency, operating alone is dead.  If any agency is not able to offer a marketing mix of services, the primary four being off and online PR, community management, digital build, SEO, then it should start feeling palpitations.

The single discipline agency, to stay relevant to brands, needs to be offering up truly integrated campaigns.  So agencies better start:

  1. Making gold standard hires who can bring the skills they are missing to the table
  2. Or forming strong alliances with other agencies who have complementary skills
  3. Or prepare to buy or be bought

This is without us even considering clients that will want their “communications solution” agency  to be able to do media-buying, PPC, design/creative as well.  Obviously in those areas the large media buying an ad agencies have a head start and simply need to ingest some great social media, web build and PR guys.  Which of couse they are doing, rapidly!  Digital Strategist being the key-in-the-door words on any CV at the moment and an exodus of social media brains going from PR agencies to ad agencies.

I am NOT saying every agency now has to position itself as the drearily entitled “one-stop shop”, but to be able to seamlessly offer expertise (and have an expert to put forward) on any area of the marketing mix is increasingly important.  Sure your key value lies in your specialism (the bit that is in your bones) eg. PR and social media engagement, but when a client says: “Can that idea work as an Android app?”, the time is coming when it’s going to be fatal if you can’t say – “Let me just call Kim into the room she is our expert on mobile apps having done…”.

While some agencies capabilities are seeming slimmer year or year, others are sounding obese.  I hear of agencies who I know don’t even have one member of staff on twitter offering social media strategy consultancy and it makes me embarrassed for the industry, but adding strings to the bow is the right principle, but it needs to be done wholeheartedly.  In a Q&A a PR agency asked me what was the quickest was to boast their social media expertise and offering.  They expected me to say about sending staff on training courses.  Bullshit.  I said: “Make a hire for a top leadership position £70 000 plus, that can bring all their expertise and experience into your agency.  Their expertise can filter down.  If you fake it until you make it using people that don’t have the relevant experience, you’ll just never make it.  Unless you count duping guilable clients our of small social media related budgets making it, which I don’t.”

We are increasingly seeing brands not easily differentiating between levels of skill in any one aspect of the marketing mix, eg. they are not saying so much now: “These guys are great at conversation management so should run our blog, while these guys are great at build/design so should create it”.

They can tell who is offering to do the most / has most different experts in a room: build, SEO and conversation generation.  Unfortunately while 2008-2010, was the age of the agile boutique agencies, that age is over, now most often size means multi-discipline resource.  In an age where because of digital capabilities sophisticated marketing mixes call for just that.

I favour a move for communication agencies to an ad agency style model with every team containing: client leads, brand planners, brand analysts, content & outreach experts, SEO, PPC, SEO and build experts.

Am I saying agencies should water down their specialist discipline.  No. No. No. Just be prepared to augment it.  Marketeers need and want marketing. To be the best agency you have got to be able to give them options (and yourself scope in how you bring great ideas to life).

Either you push the client towards agencies with other specialisms outside your own (making paying the bills and retaining them trickier) or your make it so you can offer more skills, or you build seamless kick-back alliances with complementary agencies.  That is how to futureproof yourself as the age of single discipline communication agencies marches towards the grave.

And, of course, above all simply come up with the very best ideas!

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One thought on “The age of the single discipline agency is dead

  1. Another really spot-on post Jono. Having worked at PR agencies for 5 years at the start of my media career and crossed over into digital/social media in the last 4, it definitely seems a time where the big media, digital and ad agencies are… winning the most exciting integrated online comms briefs with social ‘ideas’ at the core and therefore need creative digital people with more of a knowledge of the PR/storytelling process, content creation, SEO, the more ‘doing’ community management stuff in tandem with ‘paid for’ online advertising experience and the more technical side to compliment their PPC activity etc….which is why I’ve been working as a freelance digital/social strategist media/creative agency side because it’s generally a lot more interesting, integrated work than simply ‘doing blogger relations and managing a Facebook Page’ to compliment a traditional offline campaign at a PR agency.

    I’ve largely had to learn some technical coding and app-related build techniques off my own back but thankfully, as you say in your post, at a large media agency where I’m at right now, we have a mobile team, content team, PPC, designers, social media specialists from a UX background etc…so I can pass the technical ‘stuff’ onto them and focus on what I’m good at which is generating creative social ideas, stategy, content creation, training clients and execution..but am constantly exposed to different and new ways of digital thinking from other departments which helps you learn more and not exist in a silo..
    In the future I actually think that as digital/social/mobile becomes more and more prominent in the media campaign mix, a lot of ‘heads of creative’ at ad, media, PR and digital agencies will come from a purely digital creative background

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