Bye bye Don Draper, hello collective specialist agencies

James_Clifton_SMALLThe agency long held the answer to creative questions. A generalist proposition, wielding all the marketing prowess a client could need. It was an efficient, and effective, one-stop shop for all. But the landscape changed and the needs of the client evolved.

First, after discovering that the agency sometimes kept media commissions for themselves, the disciplines of media planning and buying hived-off into a specialist sub-culture. Then, the creative fields fractured into above the line, below the line and through the line. Along with their attendant supply chains of production companies, print shops and data services.

Under increasing pressure, the big bang of digital happened; the agency split exponentially into umpteen variations, too nuanced and niche to list.

Partly because of this fragmentation, the agency lost its way and the consultancy asserted its dominance. It was the end of the agency as we knew it.

In picking up the pieces, the integrated agency was born of those constituent parts. This approach has its merit. It seeks to realign the disparate parts through proper, joined-up thinking, focused on the target customer, uniting around “big ideas”, working seamlessly across multiple media. It’s an attempt to get the agency back to a more strategic, less tactical, level. However, it hasn’t reversed the fragmentation of marketing disciplines.

The challenge, even for integrated shops, is that there is, by now, several entire industries whose very existence (not to mention bonuses) depend on keeping all the pieces separate.

Further still, clients have mirrored the agency landscape, with multiple teams of marketers each responsible for an individual discipline. So, it sometimes becomes hard to connect agencies and clients if there’s a mismatch in structure. Integrated shops can find themselves with multiple clients at the same brand, resulting in crossed lines of communication and even conflicting goals if not carefully managed.

With the death of the generalist agency, marketing has become a broad church of disciplines – from UX to search and deep-dive data analytics to precise media placement – and, in doing so, has simply become too sophisticated, too technical, too complex for a generalist to house under one roof.

Marketing is no longer an art, it’s a science.

Even highly successful integrated shops tend now to focus their bandwidth where they know they can compete credibly. The investment needed in people, hardware and software to cover the entire marketing spectrum simply makes it untenable. Further, it’s incredibly difficult to build a reputation for brilliance across the entire spectrum of marketing disciplines, where you’re competing with specialist, mono-discipline agencies.

This development has created a challenge for the client – efficiently stitching all those individual skills together in a way that is complementary and collaborative. It’s harder than it sounds. Meetings descending into chaos; projects railroaded. Keeping all those individual teams in harmony requires effective communication, common goals and a level of teamwork that can be difficult to achieve in the remote working world.

The best way to combat those challenges can be found in next incarnation of the agency: the collective specialist. Nurturing its individual specialist skill centres, staffing, and investing in them and winning business on their merits. all while offering economies of scale, systems, resources, and geographical reach.

Spanning sectors from pharma to tech, and skillsets from TV to UX, each individually branded agency has deep expertise in a field that few generalist agencies could hope to master. Yet collectively they can field the experts needed for a task, with the added bonus of a common lexicon, mindset and approach that helps the constituent elements plug and play seamlessly.

This is key for success, helping the different skills complement each other’s strength without the client having to do the heavy lifting of joining everything together. Collective specialists typically share common platforms, KPIs and philosophies across their individual agencies.

Using shared metrics to measure effectiveness and a shared planning approach to help define those metrics helps provide congruent goals across sometimes disparate disciplines.

The collective specialist model is a worthy successor to the original agency model, only of a level of complexity and expertise that would have boggled the mind of poor Don Draper. It offers the ability to harness the incredible power of today’s sophisticated media and communication capabilities.

James Clifton is group chief executive of  The Mission Group

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