A few weeks ago, Sean Cummings wrote an article titled "" that really rubbed me the wrong way. Not because I've always been an agency guy, but because someone I like and respect managed to sum up the role of the modern agency in exactly the wrong way.
Before I dive into the arguments he makes and why they don't add up to his conclusions, I need to tell you why I think every brand marketer needs a digital agency. It's because most marketers don't have the time or resources to figure out how to best leverage digital marketing. I'd further posit that digital agencies exist in order to answer this incredibly complex question: How can a brand leverage digital marketing to build its business?
There are plenty of things a marketer needs to be concerned with before even getting to sit down at the table to discuss digital marketing. Maybe the FDA ruled that the brand can't make a specific claim on its packaging. Maybe Macy's decided that if the brand didn't move more units off shelves, it would give more shelf space to the brand's biggest competitor. Maybe an endorsement deal needed to be canceled because a celebrity landed in jail.
Many marketers have to handle these types of big-picture issues and use the remainder of their time sparingly when it comes to media in general. For this reason, it becomes difficult to spend the time necessary to hash through the complexities that come with digital marketing programs.
In short, client-side brand managers and marketing professionals need trusted digital marketing partners who can conceive of business-building programs and then execute them with minimal effort from the client side. This is why digital agencies exist.
Cummings argues that so much is broken on the agency side that clients are better off taking many functions in-house. I do believe that there are many marketers who are capable of doing so, and I'm a fan of many brands that are representing themselves in the social sphere and elsewhere. But I'm also cognizant of the fact that many marketing departments can't afford to dedicate people to digital efforts when an agency can do it more cost-effectively.
If you're a client-side marketer, think about how you might make an argument to bring staff in-house to handle the following:
- Keep your ears to the ground for new media properties, new technology companies, new measurement companies and methodologies, and new creative technologies that can assist with marketing efforts.
- Keep pace with the introduction of new consumer-side social networks, content and information portals, utilities and applications, and anything else occupying consumer media consumption.
- Make sense of new ways to tie data to ad serving, media buying, search, and measurement platforms to develop more efficient ways of buying and measuring media campaigns.
- Figure out where competitors are spending their money and resources and how that will affect your business.
Agencies have people who are dedicated to these tasks and many more, so they can craft the programs that build consumer businesses. It doesn't always make sense to bring these functions in house.
Cummings' anti-agency rant was conveniently divided into sections, and if you boil them down to their central points, you end up with the following:
- Fragmentation is behind an inability for agencies to integrate and formulate "The Big Idea," so brands shouldn't bother trying.
- Brands need to be responsible for their own website, lest it becomes a bolt-on addition that doesn't match the rest of the house.
- Production is expensive for digital endeavors.
- Focus groups are irrelevant and burdensome in a world where overnight turnarounds are the norm.
- Brand marketers should be hiring expertise internally rather than looking to external resources.
To which I would respond:
- The creative piece of an ad campaign is no longer "The Big Idea." Marketing programs that build businesses are. Failure to come up with a consistent look and feel across channels isn't a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
- Yes, brands should be responsible for more of their own websites. But we need to realize that marketers need to do more with less, and the marketing problems I described earlier tend to take priority over a brand website.
- Agencies realize that the complexity of digital campaigns can be cumbersome. And where they've run into problems with clients being unable to pay what it costs for a New York designer to execute hundreds of ad resizes, they've adapted. Many big-name agencies outsource digital production entirely, opting to give a cheaper production agency storyboards and getting finished ad assets as an output. Most good agencies are getting paid for the thinking and not for the grunt work.
- Digital technologies allow marketers to get a better read on things like brand positioning and ad concepts in a shorter timeframe. In short, if you're still using a two-way mirror, you could probably do this more efficiently. Most agencies I know are doing this digitally.
- Many brand marketers can't afford to staff a digital marketing department with highly paid specialists and the seasoned digital marketers who can manage them. Their internal pay scales don't support it, and the out-of-pocket investment is greater than that of hiring an agency. In most cases, anyway.
Not only do I believe that Cummings came to the wrong conclusions, I think that the arguments and evidence he used to come to that conclusion are easily rebutted with a bit of business common sense.