Agency, vendor… or something else? What’s in a name for B2B marketers? asks Agent3

The rapid evolution of B2B marketing has made the different protagonists within it increasingly hard to categorise or define – and that’s creating an existential crisis for those at the sharp end, such as Agent3

There was a time, in business-to-business marketing, when there were clear delineations and definitions for what the various participants did, and who they were (in other words, clients, agencies, vendors… and anyone else). It was easy to understand the landscape, what everyone does, and where they fitted in.

But these days, the boundaries are blurring, or even disappearing altogether. Insourcing by clients and the development of collaborative and integrated teams means it’s getting harder to tell where the client team ends and the agency begins.

At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to spot the difference between agencies and martech providers. I hypothesised a few years ago that we were going to see agencies morphing wholesale into vendors, and whilst this hasn’t happened quite at that scale, we are seeing it take place in a more subtle, but equally significant way. This is clearly apparent in the extent to which agencies are driving increasing parts of their revenues from tech deployment (sometimes even building clients’ tech stacks); the emergence of specialist marketing ops/automation consultancies; and most profoundly by agencies increasingly building their own tech (either carrying their own badge, or that of a spin-off company).

Agent3: A case in point

Perhaps the best example of this is Agent3. When I first encountered Agent3, a few years ago, CEO Clive Armitage told me about their potted history. From his background in PR, the company was established with the objective of providing integrated communications services but then acquired some cutting-edge ABM tech, and subsequented pivoted to operate as a vendor with a small services team on the side to help clients deploy and get the best out of its platform.

But gradually, this service's function began to grow, and spread its wings, offering consultancy on platforms outside of its ABM heartland, and making Agent3 look, feel and operate as much like an agency than a vendor. You could reasonably describe that as a pragmatic or opportunistic response to situations and client needs. But Clive and his team didn’t stop there – in 2019, they ‘seduced’ a creative team from Doremus’s San Francisco office, and helped them set up as a specialist content marketing subsidiary called This Machine.

And then, most recently, just this year, they announced the acquisition of Cheltenham-based value propositions specialist agency The Craft, with a view to bolster their ABM offering (beyond the insight services offered by their platform). In other words, they have created a mini Agent3 network within the umbrella of parent company Next 15. So effectively, in my view at least, Agent3 has gone from being an agency, to vendor, back to an agency again, and has now become a network. It’s a pretty unique journey, and its indicative of the pragmatism that is required to be successful in 2020.

Given the amount of agency-style work they are currently doing, I recently asked Clive why he declined to provide his data for our recent Agencies Benchmarking Report and associated league table. His response was that they weren’t sure that they were actually an agency! (And he pointed me towards a blog where he mused openly about this a few months ago).

The worst possible definition... apart from all the other ones

My perspective on this is that, in 2020, hard and fast definitions of different players are becoming impractical, and that the word ‘agency’ falls into that category of ‘least-worst’ definition. This also applies to things like ‘thought leadership’ which is a term which most people (event the practitioners) dislike, few can actually define, but no one has actually thought of anything better! And it probably applies to numerous other aspects of B2B marketing.

Whether Clive and his team at Agent3 decide to agree [about the definition of an agency] is, of course their prerogative (I hope they do because of my own OCD-related need to put things in boxes… but I’m not suggesting that they define their corporate strategy!). What I can say for certain is that whilst their evolution may not be conventional, it certainly seems to be paying off. Their income rose from £4.4 million in 2019 to £7 million in 2020, and global headcount has hit 90, with offices in London, New York and Sydney. That would have put them near the top of this year’s Fastest Growing Agencies League Table… should they have chosen to enter it.

The reality is that the definitions or clear boundaries between service providers isn’t likely to become any clearer as B2B marketing continues to evolve. In other words, the sea of grey that we increasingly swimming in is going to continue to get greyer! In the final analysis; however, it doesn’t matter how your marketing is set up, or what resources it uses where, as long as it has a clear strategic plan, and is executed effectively. Vive la différence!

The B2B Marketing UK Agencies Benchmarking Report 2020

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