Do clients really need agencies?

An ad agency director and an in-house creative argue that what they can bring to the marketing table is relevant in this age of fast-paced communication.


As industry maxims go, "clients only pay for the things they can't do themselves" has always seemed a pretty healthy, if hardcore, reminder of a commercial reality. It's never quite as black and white as this when we're wading about in the messy grey of a live project, but the twin forces of progress and procurement will sift, weigh up and pronounce upon the value equation eventually. Earlier this year (in a blog: "Agency, does your client need you?"), we started asking questions about what a hyper-connected, always-on world meant for brands and their agencies.

Strip away the jargon and we're left with the fact that we're experiencing a vertigo-inducing shift in our working practices (it's worth asking yourself which camp you're in: metaphorically falling asleep at the wheel, or so evolved you're halfway to becoming a lightbeam).

We're all now familiar with the reality of 365- day, 24/7, two-way brand conversations. The impact on organisations and how they interact with the people who buy and use their products and services is self-evidently profound. More parochially, the impact in terms of client-agency ways of working also may seem obvious: "baton passing" doesn't work. The old linear model is breaking down; the lines blurring on everything from strategy to implementation, even creativity.

We may baulk at the idea that "creativity" could sit as a shared task. But let's consider for a second the fact our definition of creativity is changing and broadening. Brands are increasingly marketing themselves in a social web context, where the content is often real-time, not "launch and leave". How many brands are exclusively outsourcing their voice on Facebook and Twitter, say, or will continue to do so for much longer?

With all the blurring and collaboration, not to mention the warp speed with which we all need to work, comes a need for agencies to keep an eye on the value and difference they bring. To repeat: clients pay for the things they cannot do themselves. Add economic pressure to the mix and you cannot help but think that too much duplication is not sustainable.

Let's consider two, deliberately stark, alternative organisational models:

1. Marketing is handled entirely in-house.

Integration is, as integration does. Hire in ex-agency types (Specsavers' Graham Daldry was himself hired from Ogilvy back in 1999). Fire the agency in 2013.

2. Marketing is entirely outsourced.

Client organisation focuses on manufacture and sales. Create a closely aligned partnership with an external marketing expert. Fire the marketing department in 2013.

There are less disruptive alternatives, of course, more on them below. But considering those two extremes for a moment, it's worth asking:- Where is your organisation (client or agency) against these two extremes?- How are you responding to a non-linear, iterative way of working?- Are you prepared to trial new approaches?- Who's responsible for it in your organisation?

Back to the alternatives: there are agency-client relationships that are experimenting with approaches set up precisely to thrive in a brave new world. They tend either to embrace the idea of a flat hierarchy-based partnership, or they create more adaptive models that rely on a network of collaborators. Apple and TBWA\Media Arts Lab are an example of the former, our own relationship with Google Creative Lab another. As for the latter, Victors & Spoils and the newly launched Co: in the US describe themselves respectively as "We feel like an ad agency. But we work like a crowdsourcing platform" and as "a brand studio for the 21st century CMO & CEO".

These new models help make a renewed case for why there are fundamental reasons clients do still need agencies. They boil down to this:

1. Everything's changed and nothing's changed. The craft skills required to achieve real creativity are unique. If creative agencies stay focused on refreshing and developing how they bring the magical alchemy of relevant and original ideas to bear - then their future is secure.

2. There is real value in having a powerful source of knowledge and inspiration passionately and prejudicially support a brand, but which - importantly - remains external and separate. This is about a trusted, expert agency partner challenging received wisdom on the one hand, and equally about agencies bringing to bear a richness of experience derived from working with diverse businesses.

3. However much common ground we share, we live in different villages. Creative agencies want to stay anchored in a space that's marked "creative", housed with writers, creative technologists, art directors, interactive designers, graphic designers ... people who make creative stuff.

What will typically characterise the brand team of the future? Outsourced, in-house or a perfectly spliced, collaborative client-agency team with complementary yet different skills? Who knows, perhaps all three. As someone said: "Not all agencies will figure it out. I'd just try to make sure you're working for one that will, or be among those who help your current agency get it right. Hint: don't hold on to the past, whatever you do."

- Mel Exon is a partner at BBH Labs.


There are thousands of creative agencies but, so far as I know, we are the only proper multimedia in-house agency capable of creating everything from TV ads to websites, page takeovers, direct mail, corporate videos, POS, corporate identity, training manuals and so on. This would seem to argue that we are doing something radically bad or that we are incredibly good. I'm not entirely sure that either is true.

One currently popular view of the status of creativity suggests that whereas in the past, creative, production and media sat with the creative agency while the product guardianship sat with the client, the current location of all these tasks is somewhere in an open space shared between agency and client, constituting the brand. This is because of the way communication is changing from a produced and finished entity to be consumed, to a shared and interactive model created collaboratively with the consumer. In this case, creation, production and product are shared not just between agency and client but between agency, client and consumer. If media is becoming a common space, then the brand has to be constantly present, rather than mediated and represented in the traditional way. The brand is then both the idea and the strategy and the consumer engages with it directly, and helps to create it.

It is extremely uncomfortable and inefficient for two organisations to share the same property, however, which would lead to the conclusion that, sooner or later, either the client team or the agency team will disappear; and since the client still pays the bills, nobody would want to put money on agencies surviving the ensuing crisis. This points strongly to the rise of the in-house agency model, which makes my opening question even more perplexing, since no such significant rise appears to be occurring at present.

This, in turn, leads me to consideration of the possibility that the idea of a brand as a shared property in an open media space may be seriously flawed - and even disingenuous.

In spite of its apparently infinite expansion, it is important that we realise that the media space available to an advertiser is finite. Howard Gossage's observation, in what is still the most sensible essay ever written about advertising, remains true: "There is only so much radio or TV time and only so many newspapers or magazines ...

Most of all, there is only so much human attention time; we only have so much time to absorb the advertising messages which assail us." The last point is critical because communication is indeed more limited by "human attention time" than by the media space available, which is, admittedly, markedly more extensive than it was in the 60s. We can be easily hoodwinked into believing that, because human communications have proliferated into digital space, advertising messages must do the same, matching them in volume and banality. What has actually happened is that private conversations have become more accessible but that does not change the nature of human attention or memory. The fact that there are trillions of communications does not mean that there need to be trillions of ad messages.

"How many times do you need to be told that your house is on fire?" Gossage's question is more pertinent than ever. The idea that a brand should author its message may seem unfashionable, but the idea that impactful messages are the ones that are relevant and consumable certainly is not. We only need to look at the evolution of web into app to see that consumers are hungry for ways of making digital content more easily digestible. And as for the argument that there are simply too many messages for any to be memorable, I don't see any difference between now and the 60s. It's just a question of speed. Digital networking may mean that the right person gets to hear the shout of "fire" quicker, but it won't make the message any less pertinent.

You may be wondering if I have digressed. After all, there is nothing here to suggest that an in-house agency is any better than an out-of-house agency, and the thread of argument that appears to support the emergence of working in-house as a trend is clearly nonsense; which may explain why it isn't happening. But I began wondering why we are different. This question has never caused me sleepless nights for the simple reason that being different is effective in itself. We work in an unusual way, and that has helped us to develop a memorable personality and voice, which has enabled us to create a unique brand. Consumers notice unusual behaviour, which makes our communication extremely economical. Would I recommend it? Not necessarily, because it works for us. I am often asked to prove this, but I am in the fortunate position of not having to. In any case, reasonably good proof is a happy marketing director. When I spoke to him earlier, he was.

- Graham Daldry is the creative director at Specsavers Creative.