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Friday Commentary: Boutique or Broad? Finding your perfect agency partner

Today is the start of a new series: Friday Commentary. In this series every Friday experts will shine a light on the digital industry. Where are we heading, what is going on and how should we approach this as decision makers? Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations Director at DigitasLBi kicks off this brand new series.

“They’re going to get dumped”. I was not trying to eavesdrop but a comment like that has a way of being overheard.

broad-boutique-2I was surrounded by professional marketers and the row behind had started to whisper. The conference’s keynote CMO was a few minutes into her talk and already up in arms over the challenges she faced in picking the right agencies and getting them to work together.

By the sounds of things the in-house team was trying to manage a series of dysfunctional relationships and very little actual work was getting done. I could see why the gossipy gaggle of marketers behind me had concluded the current roster of boutique agencies was in danger of being put on notice. This CMO was looking to streamline and simplify in the name of operational harmony and improved performance.

Given the tough sector the brand competed in I was not so sure moving all digital work to a generalist would solve all their marketing problems. For the CMO the dilemma had ceased to become about results, fit or point of view and had become a decision between “Boutique or Broad” agencies.

This is a tough call for any CMO to make. It is worth spending time to exploring the different offerings.

The boutique agency may be a specialist and absolutely focused on the immediate problem in hand. The broad agency may be better placed to deal with problems that are not isolated in a single silo and require integration with other parts of the business.

Price is rarely a factor. Successful boutique agencies have rate cards similar to the broad skilled agencies that operate in the sector. There is no noticeable difference in performance deals.

Size is rarely a factor. You can find large boutiques and small agencies that can consult across a range of digital spectrums.

Personality is rarely a factor. An agency partner simply has to be a good match for your brand and in-house team. Ideally, the agency would be an extension of your team while bringing new skills and a sympathetic point of view. In reality, a boutique or broad agencies have equal chance of being a good cultural fit with you and your team.

Hold on. Wait a second. What actually is a factor then?

As it turns out “Boutique or Broad?” is the wrong question to ask. The question fails to surface many meaningful differentiators in the agency landscape. This is why I doubted whether the struggling CMO would solve problems by moving from one type of agency to another.

Expertise is a factor. Expertise matters.

A good question to ask is “Is this an expert agency?”

Specialism, the hallmark of boutique agencies, does not automatically grant expert level status. We see that today with the mushroom bloom of “content marketing” or “storytelling” agencies; some of whom are leaping on the bandwagon with no real understanding of the proposition. We have seen the very same thing in previous years with social media agencies, mobile marketing agencies and even with search engine optimisation before that. Some of these specialist agencies still have not managed to reach expert status.

I argue that boutiques find it easier reaching a cultural nirvana that helps maintain expert level skills. Changes and updates from their sphere of interest affect more of the staff and therefore have a bigger impact in the agency. This is a good thing.
This focus can be a problem too. Boutiques have to work hard to avoid clique thinking. True experts are those who know when, why and where to break with the fashion of the day.

Most importantly, when considering whether to appoint an expert boutique agency, find out how well they will work with other agencies. Agencies may still come in silos but neither audiences nor digital marketing problems do.

The worst case scenario is one in which the skills needed to deliver success drift outside the skillset held by the specialist. This has happened to old style SEO agencies with tons of technical skills but without the ability to create content or engage with audiences.

This does not mean agencies with a broad range of skills are in a stronger position. In fact, such agencies will have to work harder to prove to you they have true expertise.

Broad skilled agencies not only have to deliver expert level solutions but must be challenged to prove they can do so without layers of middle management bloat.
Who actually producing strategies and doing the work in these agencies? Will it be client service teams? So called “cross digital” experts? Or actual subject matter experts? Even if the broad agency can prove to you they’ve the necessary experts they should be made to prove those people will be close to your account and not junior staff tucked behind delivery hierarchies.

Equally, such agencies might claim they offer synergies and a proposition that stretches across multiple channels. I know from experience that synergy is easier said than done. If synergies are possible, once again, we need to determine whether subject matter experts make them possible or whether too many middle management hours of rate card time are needed.

A CMO looking to appoint a new agency has a large number of factors to consider. At least the challenges for each type of agency partner sound similar.
If the first challenge is to determine whether the potential partner is a true expert the very next challenge is to find out how well the agency delivers that expertise.
Expert agencies must then show how they can integrate with other agencies, in-house team and business goals. Isolated work will not stand the test of time when channel convergence is a persistent trend.

Channel convergence is characterised by the need to work across the board in order to maintain expertise in just one area. It can be illustrated with a pair of questions. Who does your Google Display Network bidding? Are they a search agency, a display agency or a biddable media specialist? Who is engaging with digital publishers like bloggers on your behalf? Are they an affiliate agency, a social media agency or a search agency?

Even brands who work with multi-skilled agencies are likely to have more than one agency or in-house team involved such scenarios. Given that overlap is inevitable agency partners, and this certainly includes PR agencies and internal departments, must be able to cooperate.

RFPs should not be sent to agencies on the basis of whether they are a boutique or have a broad base of skills. They should be sent to expert agencies.
In the search for the perfect partner, CMOs should look to agencies that can show their expertise and can demonstrate how they can apply it in an increasingly converged digital landscape.

It’s not “Boutique or Broad”. It’s “Expert or Exit”. That might sound like a harsh message this Valentine’s Day but the relationship status “It’s complicated” has been in place for too long in some cases now.

I hope the conference invites their keynote CMO back next year so we can hear whether a change was made and what it achieved. Everyone deserves to find their perfect partner.



Media Innovations Director, DigitasLBi A blogger and a self-confessed digital marketing geek, Andrew dedicates his time to understanding What’s Next in digital marketing and sharing that knowledge with clients and colleagues