Pick One Horse in the Race — Or else even when You Win, You Lose.

Having previously spent almost 18 years on the agency side of the business, with many of those years spent handling consumer advertising for a number of the biggest brands in the world, I think I am qualified to say this: It’s a bad idea to split your business between multiple agencies.

There are far too may examples of this “strategy,” but I have never actually seen them result in a strong, effective, painless execution.  Too often clients will have an agency review and, concluding that there are strengths in more than one of the agencies they examined, decide on the “best of all worlds” scenario.  In some cases that means dividing media and creative, planning and buying, or even digital and traditional. These are actually situations I can sort of understand, though I may not like them.  In more extreme cases clients go so far as to split up media strategy from media buying across all platforms, then separate out digital and some of the more focused efforts – all going with different agencies.  This can be a recipe for disaster, as I know firsthand.

I understand the option to split media and creative, at least in theory.  These are distinctly different disciplines and there are truly only a handful of shops in the U.S. that do both really, really well.  I can also grasp the desire to split digital from traditional, although in that instance I think you have to let the digital shop do both media and creative and the traditional shop should be awarded the same responsibilities for offline. 

Digital does have a different skill set when it comes to understanding technology, but that line is starting to blur. I foresee a world in the next five years where the stand-alone digital shop is less and less the norm, with all efforts being brought under a single roof.   In the meantime, if you have any hope of being successful, you (the client) need to establish boundaries and manage budgets accordingly.  There’s no room for discussion, or you open up Pandora’s Box.

I personally think if you make the decision to go to an agency with your business, you should have the nerve to go all in with someone.  Having all those ducks under one roof enables your agency partner to truly effect change.  They can drive the message AND the medium.  They can use their resources properly to execute a campaign that conveys your message to the right people, at the right time.  This hand-in-hand ability to refine and revise a strategy works better than a disjointed one that requires offline meetings to determine next steps.

I know the concept of separation is that competition breeds innovation and creativity, but in fact it rarely does.  What it breeds is infighting for budgets and an unease between your partners.  They spend more time trying to “manage” one another and jockeying for position than they do brainstorming ideas and innovating.  As the customer with two agencies, you can spend 3x the standard amount of your time in status meetings, listening to presentations that are likely disjointed as one agency proposes a tactical idea that supposedly builds on what the other agency came up with, but in reality steers you in a different direction, taking you down a rabbit hole leading nowhere.

I once worked in an environment where there was a lead planning agency, a media buying agency and our team of digital strategy and planning/buying for media, as well as separate agencies for two other divisions within marketing.  The planning agency routinely was incapable of allocating money to digital, even though it was one of the top two performers, and the traditional buying shop kept buying digital media, even though it was not in their purview to do so.  This happened because all of the agencies were paid on commission, which means they were only incentivized to spend money, not to act in the interests of the customer.  The client never spoke up, creating an environment of “pirates” where every agency was out for themselves – hijacking budgets and driving different agendas. The result was disjointed, the efforts were nominally effective and the agencies ended up being consolidated after three years of this fruitless exercise.  Along the way people were fired as well. The whole fiasco should never have happened.

I understand the rationale for breaking up your agency responsibilities — I really do —  but if I could leave you with a single piece of advice I would say, “make a decision.” Pick one agency, give them your heart and give them your head and work with them.  If you selected them because you think they can do the job, then actually give them the job to do.

By Cory Treffiletti
Cory, senior vice president of marketing, BlueKai, is a founder, author, marketer, and evangelist.

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