Advertisers’ preference for going with specialist or full service agencies may be based on finances, personal beliefs, the latest trends or necessity. But, whatever the case, this age-old debate keeps growing new legs.
A full service agency is one that tries to offer a wide range of competencies under one roof, providing clients with a one-stop shop for all their advertising and communication needs. The Jupiter Drawing Room is such an organisation.
A specialist agency will have one core competency that they try to perform very well. PHD is considered an example of such a best of breed, having won a MOST Award last year for Best Specialist Agency.
The phrase that one often hears from those defending the specialist model is that a full service agency is “jack of all trades, master of one (or sometimes perhaps two)”. In other words, they don’t truly provide a full service, but rather have competency in certain media and not in others. On the other hand, full service supporters like to boast that they can offer their clients the convenience of not having to co-ordinate many specialists for the duration of a campaign.
The Jupiter Drawing Room’s CEO, Graham Warsop, told The Media Online last year that the “jack of all trades” tag is unfair. “At Jupiter we reject that assumption,” he said. “We wish to develop, under one roof, a range of integrated best of breed disciplines that become the benchmark for the industry. That is the Holy Grail.”
A recent survey on client/agency relationships done in the United States by industry publications Ad Week and Ad Age showed that most clients preferred working with integrated agencies. When it came to who was actually working with which type, however, the split between full service and specialist was pretty even. The situation in South Africa is much the same, says Johanna McDowell of the Independent Agency Search and Selection Company (IAS). The IAS is an organisation that helps clients find agencies with whom to work.
Most clients do prefer full service agencies, McDowell says. “Clients like to work with people with whom they can develop relationships so that those agency people can understand their business. This takes time and effort on both sides and the more services an agency can offer, the better. South African marketers are in short supply at top level, so the full service agency will often supplement the role of the marketing team in some client companies.”
A spokeswoman for a large advertiser in the technology sector said her company definitely prefers full service agencies. She wanted to remain anonymous, as she did not want to invite any more proposals from media agencies to add to the deluge she already receives. She says her organisation is happy with their current agency.
Most important for this advertiser when selecting an agency is its skill in buying and planning, she says, something the media agency on their payroll does particularly well. This company’s marketers also like the fact that the agency, as part of a large global group, have a lot of buying power in the market and are always abreast of trends emerging abroad. “We are in the technology sector, so obviously finding out what’s new and innovative is important to us,” says the spokeswoman. “Our agency knows what’s going on in technology in Europe, for instance.”
They do, however, use specialists in the digital realm. ”We use (our agency), but also other mechanisms. For instance, we use Google Search, for which we would go to Google directly. We would also go to specialists in this field (online), as it’s one that specialists do particularly well.”
McDowell says the type of agency clients prefer is a sign of the times and in a stressed, post-recession climate, full service will win. “In tough times, agencies consolidate and merge as there are economies of scale through this. You will notice quite a lot of merging activity at present among the agency fraternity.” Agencies that can offer an ‘integrated package’ to clients will do better during these periods, she adds.
“Also in tough economic times, clients are often short-staffed and they simply do not have the manpower to spend time with several different specialist agencies as opposed to one lead agency with a variety of in-house specialists.”
Sydney Mbhele, Nedbank’s integrated marketing division executive, however, feels that the extra effort of co-ordinating specialist agencies is worth it if it means getting the best skills in a particular area. “My experience… is that full service agencies are never quite full service,” he says. “They will always have a bias of strength in one or two areas, but not across. Therefore, to get sufficient cover as a client is to get specialists in each area of disciplines. This comes with a trade-off of the stress involved in trying to get different agencies to work together. But this from my experience is the better evil!”
BMW South Africa’s manager of brand communications, Shane Howarth, agrees with him. “Specialist agencies are just better at their core function,” he says.
For Mbhele, there are certain factors in selecting an agency that are given different weightings depending on what sort of campaign they are looking to run – that is, whether they want an agency that does below-the-line, above-the-line (ATL), digital and so on. These factors include a culture fit, if the agency has a Johannesburg presence and, of course, if they are client-centric. “It is important to ascertain for every pitch which of (these factors) is important at that particular time,” says Mbhele.
Nedbank currently has a relationship with a few agencies including Nota Bene and purpleberry. BMW SA has gone with, among others, Ireland Davenport for ATL, Gloo for their digital needs and Vizeum for media buying.
The digital age has brought with it a new era of specialisation and audience fragmentation. Intuitively, it seems that specialised agencies may be better able to deal with a market that is new and ever-changing, and with a situation where advertisers can reach anyone, anywhere. Full service agencies, however, do a good job in digital too, says McDowell. “Locally and internationally, full service agencies are integrating digital into their offerings as fast as possible. Most respectable agencies now can offer a digital component within their structures.
“However, for some much larger clients – banks and other financial institutions, as well as retailers – their digital needs are so complex and demanding that they really require the services of larger, well-structured ‘full service digital agencies’ such as locally-based Aqua or Native, both of which are now larger than many medium-size full service traditional agencies.”
For an agency to be a good digital partner, they need certain skills, says Howarth. “Integration is now more crucial than ever and ATL agencies need to be able to work closely with digital agencies. Digital agencies often need to be the lead agencies with regard to certain campaigns.”
Mbhele agrees digital is obviously changing the way they advertise, but says they are in good hands. “We are happy with the forwardness and thought leadership of our current digital agency, Native,” he says.
So, as an agency trying to figure out what’s best, to go specialist or remain a multi-tasker, there is no absolute answer. At the end of the day, it comes down to choices and fortunately in South Africa there is clearly a lid for every pot.
IMAGE: Staff of Native, a specialist agency.