Friday Commentary: Are you the Right Shape for Your Agency?

This post is part of the 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? In this commentary we are talking agencies with Andrew Girdwood. 

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I have written in the past how the size of an agency matters less than the level of expertise it is able to offer. That observation remains important to me and true to every senior level marketer I have spoken to in recent months. If size does not matter, what does? Shape.

Shape is defined by two key attributes; company culture and company structure. In the past I might have argued that company location was a shape attribute too but today’s communication and workflow tools reduce issues around location to nothing more than an aspect of company culture.

The headline for this post is “Are you the right shape for your agency?” and that’s an important question to consider. It might be the case that a wonderfully expert agency simply cannot produce the level of work it needs to if your company is not shaped to complement it.

The flipside is also true; “Is your agency the right shape for you?” Let’s begin by discussing why an agency’s shape may matter and from that attempt to draw a clearer picture of what I mean by “shape” in the first place.

A flat agency has few layers of management and team structure than a hierarchical agency. The latter may deploy team leaders, heads of department and line managers. Both shapes are good but traditionally agencies try and strike the balance between the two.

If your agency is hierarchical you may want to ensure you have access to senior management when you need it. The phase “executive sponsor” is a good one to hear. Equally, you may want to make sure the team who are actually doing the work are available to you for appropriate meetings.

If your agency is flat then you may want to ensure there are appropriate Quality Assurance processes in place, robust project management and that there is sufficient scope for scale and growth.

In my role as a Media Innovations Director I know that spreading innovations, ideas and the desire to try something new can be easier in a flat agency structure but that actually getting that innovation in place without being too disruptive (not that disruption is always bad…) is sometimes easier with a hierarchal structure.

How an agency thinks of itself is a very large influence on its shape. Creative agencies may brainstorm concepts and interesting ideas first, then think about the possible audience and then how to connect that audience to the idea (or hand over to a media agency at that point). Whereas a Media agency may approach the same problem by thinking about effective ways to reach an audience, then what assets, stories and executions are needed to do that before thinking about creative ways to bring those assets to life (or hand over to a creative agency at that point). In both cases the agency should be thinking about goals and KPIs throughout.

Of course, an increasing trend is for agencies to configure themselves so that they can do all of the above as well as possible by themselves. That’s a great idea provided it does not come at the cost of expertise.

To bring this to life a little let us look at a theoretical SEO engagement. Does a ‘media agency’ have the ability to produce the sort of amazing content necessary to earn links of sufficient clout to count as a quality signal for Google and Bing? If they don’t then you might predict a lot of outsourcing of content creation to partner agencies, freelancers or even back to the brand’s in-house team. Does a ‘creative agency’ or ‘content marketing specialist’ have sufficient understanding of what works as linkbait, is easy for bloggers to work with or even how to create assets so that they have SEO value in the first place? If not then you might end up with some assets that the SVP of Marketing loves but few other people have seen.

The shape of the client brand is just as important.

It is not uncommon for client brands to have separate PR and digital marketing teams. That’s an aspect of shape. Does that mean the digital marketing team will not be able to engage in any outreach to publishers like bloggers or press? If so then that means agency tasks on social or SEO might be held back. As brands engage in restricting around today’s social digital world some of these shape-based barriers are coming down but different companies are at different states of transformation.

Where does customer relationship management sit within your brand? If it is too far away from the marketing team then, once again, that determines your shape and influences the sort of agency work you can engage in.

A company’s shape is not just about how internal departments are structured and separated. Do Compliance rule the roost? Are they incentivised to never ever take a risk? That will influence your shape and the work agencies can do. Is internal sign off quick and speedy? Or do you have to navigate significant internal processes just to get a Change Request through? Some agencies are better at taking things slowly while others much prefer working as close to real-time as possible. Don’t believe me on the latter? Try counting the days between Valentine’s Day and affiliate newsletters that mention Valentine’s Day.

A traditional brand marketing team or CMO who do not go as deep into digital as you might want are part of the company’s shape. Equally, a digital team that thinks first and foremost about cost effective CPA rather than “brand love” is equally part of your corporate shape.

The ultimate truth is that there is no “right shape”. There are different shapes. Some shapes go well together and some shapes are miss-matched despite the best intentions and expertise of people on both sides.

Matching your shape with the right agency shape is so important that I am a big believer in the chemistry meeting. Worth holding one before a pitch. It’ll help rule in and rule out agencies. It’ll help simplify the whole process.

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About Andrew Girdwood

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