How to build the right agency roster

Agencies have gotten very good at talking about how complicated the marketing mix is nowadays and, for the most part, it’s a defence mechanism that clients need to be confident in seeing through. Fine, fine; there are theoretically more channels than ever before. But that’s no excuse for rostering 8 different agencies and letting them do each other’s jobs. So here’s some thoughts I’ve had this year about what an effective (and not inefficient) agency blend looks like.

Don’t just expect everybody to play nice

Ah, I’m serious. Find agencies that aren’t dicks, obviously – and by all means impress upon them the need to collaborate. Cross-agency collaboration is, as we’ve all read so many times, the future.

But getting teams to work together in a way that’s both sustainable and progressive isn’t easy, so set boundaries, and be clear about the value you see in each agency partner.

If you disparage one agency’s work in front of another, it’ll only lead to opportunism and a breakdown in trust between the people who should be focused on doing great work. If you see issues, raise them and act accordingly. But keep all-agencies constructive. Anything else will cause more pain than it’s worth.

Find a lead agency that will focus on the big picture

Someone needs to lead the conversation when you’re not in the room, and whoever that is needs to know they’re being judged on the overall plan that gets delivered, not just their specialist segment of it.

Do not expect this selection to happen naturally; all you’ll get is a bunch of egos butting heads and rolling their eyes as soon as you leave the room.

Some agencies are good at playing the lead; others, though hugely talented in their specialism, are useless at it. Their role should be a strategic one that covers the overarching approach. They don’t need to be your creative partner – although having the two under the same roof can be hugely effective.

Get as much execution out of that lead agency as you feel comfortable with

If you feel there are channels that your lead agency can execute from farm to table, I highly recommend making use of that. Don’t approach it as a cost-cutting exercise, even if you might be tempted. You might save a bit on account management costs, but the real value is in the quality of the work you’ll get, and the time it will (won’t) take to get there.

If they can’t take something from concept to delivery, though, don’t ask them to do half of the job. Get the lead agency to brief off channel-agnostic strategic & creative thinking to someone who can adapt and deliver it, and make sure to listen to their opinion on how well the channel response meets the brief.

Set overall budgets in collaboration with your lead agency

As your objectives shift, your budget breakdown should do the same. But agencies are pre-disposed to pitch for as much budget as is available. They also have a tendency to think everything looks like a nail, just because they’re holding a hammer.

Work out the role and importance of channels before you brief executing agencies. This might mean you have to start a little earlier, but it’s worth it; going to your PR agency with a £50k budget and asking them to respond to a sub-brief (drive trust on a regional level, say) is much more effective – and efficient – than throwing everyone the same document and “working out the details” further down the line.

By all means, remain flexible; if someone comes back to you with a golden idea within their specialism, but it’s £15k out of budget, there will be a decision to make as to where that budget can be found. But don’t get wowed by stretch budgets as a rule; stick to the principles you’ve laid down.

Build for the long-term

One of the biggest issues with building sustainable agency rosters is that every piece of that puzzle is continually trying to grow what it can do for you. Sometimes that’s a land-grab on other agencies’ territory; other times it’s a new direction altogether.

This behaviour is deep-seated, and it causes problems because: what if the next 12 months don’t call for any experiential? What if the website isn’t the priority this year? Your agency partner will try to convince you that their discipline is still super-relevant to the mix, and you have to be savvy enough to see through the bullshit.

But one useful way to counteract this can be to find trusted partners and set expectations at the outset of the relationship. Agencies have a tendency to panic when budgets get cut; make sure they know it’s not because you don’t see the value in what they do, but just that you need a different kind of value this time out. Be open to being proven wrong, but base your decisions on evidence.

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