Narrow is the new normal: Why expertise will help agencies survive the in-house exodus
We need to adapt to today’s landscape whether collaborating with in-house teams or as part of a multi-agency effort, specialized expertise is the path forward.
It’s no secret that brands are moving more advertising and marketing functions in-house. Countless stories have been written about it. From media buying to SEO to full creative offerings, every day brings fresh news of another multinational deciding it’s better (read: cheaper) to do it all themselves. Brand experience is no different: as brands embrace experience-led thinking, they also tend to import experts who understand creative through the traditional experience lenses of activations, pop-ups and live events.
For agencies, this seemingly leaves two options. They can either expand their offering (casting a wider net for opportunities) or waste time swimming against the current. In my experience, agencies can easily become stretched as they move out of their zone, relying on freelancers to patch over the holes, and running the risk of damaging relationships and reputations by underdelivering. I’ve also watched as agencies have started turf wars with the clients’ internal agencies, trying to protect their shrinking piece of the pie. Both do more harm than good.
But there is a third option. Agencies need to go narrow: clearly identify where your agency excels and make your mission to be absolutely best in class within that area. More and more, we’re hearing brands bemoan the ‘one stop shop’ mentality. They are seeking out genuine expertise over generalization and don’t trust agencies that claim to do it all. This should be a signal to the industry: to adapt to today’s landscape, narrow should become the new normal, whether you’re collaborating with in-house teams or as part of a multi-agency effort. While it may mean closing off certain revenue streams, it ultimately future-proofs your agency by making you an attractive collaborator with value that stems from expertise.
But how do you narrow your focus to become a better collaborator? I recently got some insight into this while working with Vans for the global launch of a nostalgic experience designed to celebrate their latest shoe technology. By reflecting on that successful partnership, I learned several lessons on how to embrace this better model for agency success.
Know your strengths and your weaknesses
This one seems obvious, but it’s trickier than it seems. It can feel counterintuitive to lower the number of revenue-generating avenues ahead of you (especially as times get tougher), but in truth, expertise will always be valued. Critically assess what your agency does well, and strengthen in these areas. At the same time, be clinical about removing service offerings that aren’t at the core of your business, or within the capabilities of your own team. Expertise will lead to increased trust and more honest (and profitable) relationships with clients. In the case of launching the new shoe technology, we didn’t try and create all new visual assets for the experience: instead, we integrated our look and feel with their broader retail launch design, making the entire launch moment far more integrated.
Risk building powerful partnerships
No one wants to say no to a client. But that doesn’t mean just saying yes. As you shed your non-essential offerings, reach out to partners that are experts in that field, and forge new relationships with them.
If clients ask you to take on elements outside your narrow band of expertise, suggest sharing the load with a trusted partner. This has the benefit of keeping your relationship with the client trusted and healthy while also helping you build strong relationships with sister or partner agencies. Ultimately, the flow of opportunity will reverse as partners begin recommending your team when placed in similar situations. It can feel risky to invite a new agency to the table, but if you’ve laid a solid foundation, you should be able to avoid a landgrab situation. A great example of this in the implementation of creative technology: it’s better to bring in experts in specific technologies rather than going it alone with disparate vendors, or trusting generalists.
Build good fences to make good neighbors
Clear and well-communicated division of labor is absolutely critical: before a pencil is sharpened or an asset designed, clearly articulate who will be doing what.
When working on the shoe campaign, neither side began designing until both sides (agency and in-house creative) had agreed upon a shared creative direction, and carefully assigned roles and responsibilities to move forward. As the agency, we then controlled the experience design, leaving the Vans team to focus on the messaging and core brand elements. This ultimately led to a streamlined creative and production process, and ultimately a successful and satisfying project delivery that far exceeded client expectations.
Don’t have too many cooks in the kitchen
Finally, a harder lesson to learn: more creatives don’t equal better creative. When in-house and agency creatives (or multi-agency teams) collaborate within clearly defined boundaries, the output can be excellent. However, the flip side can be terrible: multiple teams delivering the same work, weeks spent going down the wrong path and in the worst case scenario, the dilution of the core concept. Good creative requires a clear vision, so make sure everyone’s on the same page in a macro sense before letting each team demonstrate their own expertise.