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'Conscious Uncoupling' isn't just for Chris and Gwynnie.

It’s an indisputable fact that client marketers are constantly striving to spend their marketing budget more effectively, seeking new and innovative ways to reduce wastage.  So it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see the halcyon days of the 80s with big hair and big ad spends! With the former, it’s probably just as well!  With the latter, though, I also think this is no bad thing either.

There was a time when large advertising and design agencies wielded too much power in the advertising ecosystem and budgets were not so much big, as bloated.  Huge margins were made and, as long as campaigns looked good and were delivered on time everyone was happy.

That has all changed, of course, but these tier one agencies are still top dog for many B2B clients. Their position as the go-to places to find the insight and resource to do the deep dive into the mind of the customer and create the big creative idea on which a whole brand strategy, brand redesign, advertising campaign or packaging design can hang.­­­­­ 

However, where they fall down is in the detail; but get the detail wrong and a whole campaign or rebrand can fail.  I can’t begin to remember the number of times we’ve had a distress call from a client that has bought into the big idea from the tier one agency – but unfortunately that same agency has left it until the last minute to implement it and just doesn’t have the set up to make it happen in time.

Of course, we love getting calls like this as we know we can do it - small agencies have the flexibility and streamlined structure to get things done at the drop of a hat, whereas tier one agencies have pipelines and processes that have to be adhered to.  But this last minute action is unlikely to be the best approach for the brand itself for the long term. 

That’s why we’re starting to see ‘decoupling’ grow as a trend in how clients work with their branding and design agencies.  There has already been a move towards this phenomenon over the past few years in other marketing disciplines - in media (with media buying decoupled from ad agencies into media specialists) and also where production houses have taken artwork out of ad agency hands.

This new phase of decoupling, though, is seeing clients bring in tier two design agencies to work alongside the tier one agencies, as expert executors of the big idea.  This way they can create a ‘dream team’ which brings together the best in terms of planning, strategy and big thinking with expert implementation skills that make that big idea come to life on time.   

Small design agencies are no less talented than big ones, but they have a different focus and skill set; plus they tend to be just as adept of working on big projects as small ones as they will have a team of art workers on hand.

The route for a client to decouple its design work isn’t always going to be a walk in the park, though.  Big agencies (like any agency) will always tend to be protective of projects and want to keep them to themselves.    This means that, when they invite agencies to pitch, clients should create a two tier system of pitching, with a clear distinction between the ‘blue sky’ brief and the implementation one.  The tier one agency should then drive the creative thinking but with input – and ultimately buy-in – from the tier two partner to ensure the work is executed on-brand.

The client also needs to take control, provide both agencies with an unambiguous remit that makes it clear what is expected of them – and ensure that tier one agencies understand that bringing in an implementation agency is nothing personal.

The concept makes sense.  After all, if you’re building a house, you bring in all the specialists you need – the builder, the architect, the engineer etc and you don’t expect the architect to start digging the foundations!  However, it’s not just about time, but budgets too.  Tier one agencies tend to charge much higher rates then tier two agencies.  So, if decoupling can help clients significantly reduce their roll out costs while at the same time maintaining standards, you can see why it’s becoming an increasingly compelling proposition.