Composer or conductor? the debate continues
Composer or conductor? the debate continues
A view from Rob Gray

Brands need conductors and composers: The full service agency or marketing director debate plays on

Greg Delaney recently posed the question of who should conduct the orchestra of specialists needed to build modern brands - the client marketing director or full-service agency planner? Rob Gray, co-founder of Squad and former TBWA/ planner, takes up the baton.

If you approach this question (Who should be the conductor? Full service agency or marketing director?) from a management point of view it has to be the marketing director.

They are the only person whose incentives are structured to align with the organisation’s. Anyone who works for an agency is incentivised to better their company’s lot.

If the agency provides activation services as well as strategic services then there is clearly scope for conflict of interest.

In general, the skills and personality of marketing directors are more suited to being the conductor.

Marketing in the 21st century requires large teams of specialists, irrespective of whether they sit in full-service agencies, specialist independents or even within the client’s organisation; and leadership and management skills are needed to unite all these people behind the common goal. As Greg says, people with a "blend of charm and hair dryer".

But there is a problem with marketing directors being the sole conductors. Tony Blair recently said that some political leaders are lucky if they get to spend 5% of their time on what they consider to be their core priorities.

That’s not much time at all. I suspect many marketing directors feel similar to these political leaders, particularly in large and complex organisations.

They have boards to report to, internal politics to manage, new people to recruit, HR policies to administer and staff to appraise. And that’s without touching on agency procurement.

Knitting together all a brand’s marketing activity requires a conductor who can devote time to working closely with all the teams.

Someone who can grapple with all the strategic and creative issues and then stitch them together to build a cohesive brand.

So what’s the answer?

Personally, I think independent specialists are preferable to full-service models. It’s easy to see why the all-in-one model is attractive. With so many competing demands for a marketing director’s time, fewer pitches and less reviews is pretty compelling.

But here’s the rub. With so many disciplines, full-service agencies need to be big. This means multiple departments. It means more management, process and bureaucracy.

While large holding companies may be able to put out teams with the same logo on their business cards, the reality is it’s hard to be any more integrated than independent specialists. And in my experience each unit still has its own P&L to shore up.

Specialists on the other hand are individually smaller. Normally the owners of the business are more involved. They are more fleet of foot.

Motivation is greater. Cultures are stronger. And they are more focused on their area of expertise.

Personal preferences aside, I can see how some clients will favour the full service route while others will opt for independents. Either way, here’s the crucial point for achieving integration - marketing directors need a strategist who can be their trusted lieutenant.

A lead strategist can devote themselves more fully to achieving strategic and creative alignment. They don’t have to worry about all the management and leadership issues that marketing directors battle with.

Plus their skill set is more suited to this part of the role. They should be inquisitive about consumers, competitors and markets. They need to have the clarity of thought and skill of articulation to define disruptive strategies.

And they must be a natural collaborator who can work with creatives from all spheres to create great work across all channels.

If the lead strategist is independent – rather than part of a full-service agency – then there’s the added bonus that their motivations are aligned with the brand. They have no incentive to recommend a particular approach. They are truly media neutral.

So my answer to Greg’s question is "both". At the risk of working the analogy to death, both a conductor and a composer are needed.

Marketing directors orchestrate and lead the team. Planners must be the composers – in Latin, the one who puts together – who create the music.