Is an aircraft carrier as good as a submarine?

It’s not as simple as comparing integrated versus specialist when it comes to agencies today, says Clif Collier

How can integrated agencies prove they are just as specialist as boutique agencies? The simple answer is they can’t. 

In the same way, you can never prove an aircraft carrier is as specialist as a submarine. Why would you even want to try? 

Perhaps by recasting the question as - how can integrated agencies and boutique agencies prove their relevance? - might we come up with a more germane answer that demonstrates how both options have merit and, more importantly, is of benefit to our clients.

A few years ago, integrated versus specialist would have been a valid question, as both types of agencies fundamentally drew from the same skills base to service their clients. Clients could make their decisions based on fairly clear differentiators – scale, breadth of resources, fee levels, agility and chemistry. Ultimately, it boiled down to a value judgement. As technology plays an ever-increasing and inordinately complicated part of the mix on offer, there is a whole new genre of ‘boutique’ agencies. These agencies have a narrow focus on discrete segments of the tech stack, and in doing so truly differentiate themselves, but this invests them in digital solutions only, and that is not a strategy. Technology develops at such speed; the typical integrated agency’s culture inhibits the level of innovation needed to be genuinely leading edge. This culture, by necessity, is a broad characterisation, as currently there are estimated to be no less than 20 definable agency models providing varying permutations of a myriad of science and art-based solutions to marketing professionals. 

The fact is no one has all the answers. The solution is no longer either/or; it has to be and.

An agency’s starting point is applying a far higher degree of objective analysis of breadth and depth of competency (aka less ego). 

This analysis should then be the template to create a whole different kind of commercial relationship between several interdependent service providers; a relationship based on true partnership, where candour and collaboration are paramount and communication is open and all-inclusive. This approach recognises the combined resources, providing the right mix of strategy, creativity, connectivity and implementation which is far more likely to drive successful business transformation and results in short order. 

It is the role of today’s ‘integrated’ (or should it be integrator) agency to lead this. The good ones can provide the critical insights and the element of ‘magic’ that speaks to the target audiences’ minds and hearts; that resonates with them, that touches them emotionally in this oh-so-rational, technology fixated B2B world.

There is one final element required to deliver optimum results. Technology now enables our clients’ clients to drive the agenda; therefore, clients also have to engage in this new model. They have to reappraise their historic agency relationships and truly embrace the concept of one team. Only by doing so can they exploit the technology rather than be its servant.

As marketing professionals, the solution is in our hands, but real change starts in the mind. That need for transformation starts by envisaging a fundamental shift from a competitive to collective approach.

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