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The 5 biggest agency turf wars

The Battle Royale is one of the most anticipated events in all of professional wrestling. It's 20 beefy men giving each other forearm slams and pile drivers in the ultimate no-holds-barred, last-man-standing turf war.

From the outside looking in, I'd imagine that's what the advertising landscape looks like right now.

The 5 biggest agency turf wars

The truth is that it's not so bad from where I sit. Some turf battles are more hype than reality. Others are a bloody mess. I'm sure others have a different view, so please weigh in. But first, let's take a look at the current turf wars in the agency world.

Agencies vs. publishers

Publishers want advertisers to spend money on their platforms. Advertisers want unique native advertising opportunities that are closer to publishers' content than a typical banner ad. It's expensive for agencies to develop creative for one-off executions for individual publications, however, so often these publishers might get left off the plan.

Of course, publishers don't want to get left off the plan so they hire junior designers, look at brands' existing campaigns, mock up ad units, and tell the advertisers they can have the creative for free.

On the surface, a brand might ask, "Free banners from a publisher or thousands of dollars from my agency? Hmm."

This same scenario plays out with everything from mobile ads to sponsored content to Simon Cowell's plastic cup of Coca-Cola.

Is this really a turf battle? Or is it an opportunity?

The challenge publishers face is that while they might come up with the occasional clever idea and can follow brand guidelines as well as the next guy, they are never going to be strategic marketing partners for brands. First off, they are self-interested, so they'll never be objective or useful beyond their own properties. Second, developing brand strategy and translating that to creative is a core competency that they don't have. Third, do brands really want to manage a bunch of individual publishers? That's not a core competency brands have either.

The smartest agencies aren't looking at this as war. Instead, they are getting ahead of it. They are sending RFPs to publishers and asking how they can help. They are vetting ideas and bringing them to their clients. They are getting publishers to contribute additional value and passing that along to their clients.

Yes, it means agencies will get to build a few less banner ads. (Sniff.) On the other hand, they'll get to deliver more value and better results to their clients. And if agencies do that, they don't have to worry about clients taking meetings "behind their back" with publishers. It's a win-win.

Agencies vs. DSPs

I recently overheard the media director at another agency say she wanted to send MediaMath a non-disclosure agreement because she heard rumors that it was going around agencies' backs and selling managed services to their clients.

So now brands are supposed to use proprietary technology companies as their new agencies? Good luck with that.

The truth is that tools like demand-side platforms (DSPs) make some degree of media buying a commodity. They are pretty damned easy to use.

But if you talk to the people actually using these platforms, you'll find that:

1. They are actually labor intensive to use.
2. While the basics are easy, strategy and the ultimate degree of success you'll have come in when you set them up and customize them.
3. Different DSPs work better in different situations.

Brands hire agencies to solve problems that lie outside their areas of expertise. Unless a brand wants to start bringing media in-house, working directly with ad tech vendors seems like a foolish path.

Of course, that brings us to our next turf war...

Agencies vs. in-house client teams

Some brands have been taking parts of their community management and online direct response in-house. My agency brethren might not like me saying this, but sometimes this makes absolute sense. Sometimes.

Community management is one area. In an ideal world, that is something that is better done by somebody who actually works at the company. You wouldn't call an agency to run your call center. So why outsource customer service to one just because it's on Twitter?

Direct response is also being handled in-house by a handful of brands that have e-commerce as their primary source of revenue.

In fact, our client Shutterfly brought online direct response in-house because driving e-commerce revenue is the core of its business. Shutterfly engaged us for a year to help it develop that expertise in-house. The combination of programmatic buying tools and commoditized display creative is making customer acquisition a business process in organizations. But should it be? It takes hubris and talent to think you can do something that isn't core to your business as well as a partner whose entire business is centered on it. But for some, it makes sense. That's up to the clients to decide.

Agencies vs. video production houses

High-speed web access is ubiquitous. More than half of Americans have smartphones, and more than half of those are completely addicted to them. Brands have learned that they need content to engage customers. All this adds up to an insatiable demand for video from brands.

It is trite to say that the era of high-production values is over. Tell that to a brand about to spend a few million bucks on a TV campaign -- or even a video that will live on its website, the cornerstone of most every brand today. Quality still matters. Being strategic matters. Making people laugh or cry or think matters. Building trust matters.

No, the need for high-quality production hasn't gone away. But it's been joined by the need for sometimes not-so-high-quality production. In either scenario, the agency will typically leverage the production company -- if they're smart and secure.

Just yesterday I was approached by a major bank brand. It wanted to produce some customer videos. It knew the style it wanted. It knew which customers it wanted to interview. It just needed some help designing a "video template" and cost-effective production. So I referred it to a production studio.

Ad agencies vs. digital agencies vs. PR agencies

For starters, the distinction between ad agencies and digital agencies is essentially meaningless at this point. There isn't really any noteworthy difference between what Goodby offers versus an AKQA. So we can put that one to bed.

Where the real battle lines are being drawn, however, is between consumer-centric agencies versus PR shops. This has been fueled by the rise of social media. To me, this is a false equivalence because other than social, PR shops don't stand a chance of horning in on ad agencies because they are media-focused, not consumer-focused. Even when it comes to social, the community management part might actually be better handled in-house, as noted earlier.

Adam Kleinberg is CEO of Traction.

On Twitter? Follow Kleinberg at @adamkleinberg. iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Businessman in boxing gloves isolated on white" image via Shutterstock.

MediaPost named me an OMMA All-Star in 2013, an award given to the three most influential digital creatives in the U.S. each year. I was called one of the Top 25 Most Innovative Marketers in Digital in 2012 by iMedia Connection. In 2014, Traction...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: david schutzman

2013, August 16

Suzy, thanks for bringing Visible Spectrum to our attention. Looks like a game changer and should be on every senior marketer's radar screen. Probably also a great tool for small and mid-size business owners with tight budgets and time. Incidentally, there's a timely article in techie.com entitled "Bringing professional quality video to your hyperlocal marketing campaign" and discusses Visible Spectrum's unique value proposition - here's the link - http://techie.com/bringing-professional-quality-video-to-your-hyperlocal-marketing-campaign/

Commenter: Suzy Suker

2013, August 15

Short, snappy web videos are being gobbled up by the new tablet-driven generation and in response organizations must shift their text-heavy online content to creating compelling videos that will capture and keep their target audience engaged. But as the need for video increases, organizations lack the time or resources to create high quality videos for each message. Take the restaurant chain or retailer that needs to produce dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of localized versions of their videos for each location.

Forget the traditional big video production houses or ad agencies that take months to produce video content at huge costs. What's needed is a totally different approach to video production.

Visible Spectrum is an online video production platform that uses a layered approach to creating customized content. Users store individual pieces of content in a database and then tailor their messages fast and inexpensively using templates. The online system allows users to experiment with different content and offers a collaborative work environment. The result: customized or localized videos by the hundreds, fast and at a fraction of the cost of using traditional methods.

Commenter: Adam Kleinberg

2013, July 24


Totally agree with you. When we partnered with a PR agency on one of our clients, they had already done "positioning" work which was all about understanding what conversations were already happening and how the brand could fit into them in a slightly differentiated way. It was useless for connecting with consumers though. Our approach was totally different, all about understanding the unique way we could convey value to people, not publications. I think you're right though. Complete positioning accomplishes both.


Commenter: Michael Moir

2013, July 24

Great article. Love the notion that a service provider is either a media-centric or consumer-focused approach. Where in the end these need to work in harmony.