Agencies: Specialist or full service?

Full-service agencies may offer a complete solution, but a specialist will have the expertise. So who do you hire, asks Trevor Clawson.

"If the only tool that you have is a hammer, the solution to every problem is banging on a nail." That's the view of Mike Teasdale, planning director of Harvest, a full-service digital advertising and marketing agency.

His point is a simple one. Agencies that cover off a broad range of services are ideally placed to deliver fully integrated campaigns. Specialist agencies, on the other hand, tend to focus on their own particular disciplines, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

Not everyone would agree. An argument that is often used against full-service players is that while they go wide they don't necessarily go deep. Yes, they might be able to tick all the digital boxes, from banner campaigns through to email, search and affiliate schemes, but there is no guarantee that they will be equally skilled across all the disciplines listed in their portfolios.

"I have yet to come across a truly integrated agency," says Ross Sleight, strategy director of Virgin Games. "They all have areas where they are weak. For that reason, we tend to work with specialist agencies. You have to do more legwork to ensure that your suppliers are delivering on a single strategy - but using specialists works better for us."

And yet the trend over the past few years has been towards the creation of agencies that offer increasingly comprehensive service portfolios - and not just in the digital arena. Juliet Blackburn is head of digital at AAR, the consultancy that advises companies on choosing the agencies that are best placed to deliver on their objectives.

Over the past few years, she has seen an increasing number of traditional creative agencies ramping up their digital activities in response to the growing importance of online marketing.

"The ad agencies are anxious to maintain their client relationships and play a continuing role in brand engagement," she says. Meanwhile, in the reverse direction, digital agencies have been attempting to push into offline territory, a trend recently highlighted by Glue's pitch for Eurostar's above-the-line advertising budget.

This poses a thorny question for online marketers. As the supplier landscape becomes increasingly complex, where do you put your budget? Does it make sense to brief your above-the-line agency to handle the online side, or would a full-service digital agency be more effective? Alternatively, do you go down the best-of-breed route and hire a bevy of specialists?

The case for full service

Perhaps the first question to ask is whether full-service agencies can deliver the goods across the increasingly a broad range of functions. Alison Meadows, managing director of Ware Anthony Rust (WAR), says the answer to that question is yes.

With a client list that includes Asda, Lloyds TSB Agricultural, Sainsbury and Smith & Nephew, WAR's range of services covers PR, television and radio advertising, DM and digital marketing. "We have digital specialists in-house," says Meadows. "If someone wants, say, some viral work done as part of a campaign, we have the specialists who can do that."

And according to Meadows, provided the skills are in place, working with a single supplier offers some very real advantages. "The client has just one agency to interface with," she says. "That ensures that the components of the campaign will be strategically and tactically joined up. The campaign will be coordinated, with everything happening at the right time."

From the perspective of full-service digital agency, Teasdale also advocates a holistic approach. Indeed, he argues that even if a company is using a number of agencies to handle the various components of a campaign, it make sense to use suppliers who have a 360-degree view of the market.

"Most of our clients don't do everything with us," he says. "But what we can do is provide advice on all aspects of the campaign - we can talk through the options for the various elements. That's not something that specialist players can necessarily do. They don't always see the bigger picture."

As Teasdale argues, full-service agencies don't (or shouldn't) have an axe to grind over any particular tool or strategy. While a search-optimisation specialist will tend to see the marketing agenda in terms of Google and Yahoo! and an email provider will focus on the customer inbox, the full-service player looks at the objectives of a campaign and advises on the best tools for the job. And when it comes to measuring results, they will have all the information at their fingertips.

Blackburn agrees that many marketers see it as an advantage to work with a single supplier, often because they don't have the budget or resources to manage multiple relationships. But she cautions that if a specific component of a campaign - say email or SEO is particularly important - it is crucial to ensure that the full-service supplier has the ability to implement it.

Sleight agrees that ability to execute is all important. "An ad agency might come up with the big ideas but you also have to be sure that is possible to execute those ideas," he says.

Something special

That's often where the specialist agencies come into play. According to Andrew Robinson, managing director of email services provider Lyris UK, there are quite a few areas where highly focused agencies are continuing to secure a healthy market share.

"We're seeing specialists continuing to do well in disciplines such as email marketing, paid and natural search and affiiliate marketing," he says. "They are also doing well in new areas such as PR distribution and social media planning."

In Robinson's view, it's not simply a case of full-service agencies lacking technical skills - after all, skills can be bought in. Rather, it's the fact that these are areas where practices and expectations are moving rapidly.

He cites email, the core of the Lyris offering, as a case in point. Over the past couple of years, the market has changed enormously. Not only has there been a move away from the distribution of bulk email towards greater segmentation based on customer profile, but deliverability has also become a major issue.

In order to minimise the number of emails that are classified as spam (and therefore blocked), mail providers have had to work hard to understand the practices and requirements of ISPs. "Full-service agencies are not necessarily aware of changes in the market," says Robinson. In practical terms, that could mean generalist agencies scoring badly in the deliverability stakes.

Of course, full-service agencies will argue that by building specialist teams, they are just as capable of keeping up with trends in the marketplace as their specialist rivals. But Robinson argues that management structure can impair their ability stay ahead of the curve. "The full-service agencies don't necessarily have people who understand areas such as email or search on their boards," he says.

However, as Arjo Ghosh, chief executive of Spannerworks, points out, many specialist players are expanding their activities. For instance, his company started out in search optimisation but has now moved into areas such as social networking, content (news and editorial feeds) and display.

These new services have a relationship with Spannerworks' ability to deliver results on the core search function, but they also mean that the business is capable of doing a much wider range of work.

"Traditionally, there was a divide between data-based marketing services and creative work. That distinction is breaking down," he says. The challenge then, even for specialists, is stay on top of their own markets while adapting to meet the requirements of an ever more integrated media landscape.

Which brings us back to the thorny question of choosing a supplier when agencies from different backgrounds overlap in terms of the services they offer. "You have to ensure that they can deliver what they promise," says Blackburn. "You should always ask for examples of the work they've done for others."