Are the days of specialist agencies numbered as brands reconsider arrangements, John Tylee asks.
If recent events are any indication, major advertisers are taking the secateurs to their digital rosters like eager summer gardeners hacking back the effects of too much haphazard growth.
Just as a late spring followed by heavy downpours has sent plants out of control, much the same has happened to clients’ digital arrangements, many of which are also showing signs of too much uncontrolled expansion.
So, last week’s announcement by Vodafone UK that it is looking to prune the number of agencies sharing its £10 million digital business looks like a logical reaction.
In some ways, what is happening is just a reflection of a wider trend. Advertisers are looking at how best to take the shears to agency rosters that can comprise hundreds of shops worldwide.
The problem has become particularly acute in the digital arena and is a legacy of the time when clients, struggling to cope with new communication platforms and technologies, simply hired another specialist shop to handle every new development.
In some cases, different divisions of the same company have been found to be using more than one digital specialist to carry out similar work. Peter Cowie, the Oystercatchers managing partner, says: “A client might tell us he has 20 agencies on his digital roster, only for us to find he has three times that number.”
David Wethey, the Agency Assessments International chairman, believes more digital consolidation is certain. “Mainstream and integrated agencies that used to be hopeless at digital have upped their games considerably,” he points out. “Meanwhile, client marketing departments have fewer people to manage multiple agency arrangements.”
What’s more, clients are looking for innovative ideas that can be communicated across a range of channels. And they are looking for those ideas from all their roster agencies, irrespective of their specialism.
Some believe the shake-out is the result of a “less is more” approach by clients as they put rosters under scrutiny.
Jeff Dodds, Virgin Media’s executive director, brand and marketing, says: “It takes agencies a long time to understand complicated brands like ourselves and Vodafone and the commercial challenges we face. The general trend among clients is to have fewer agencies but that understand you better.”
That is not to say the days of single-specialism digital agencies are numbered. And certainly not while social media, very much the territory of PR specialists rather than marketers, grows in influence. Mobile and search are also seen as areas where specialist expertise wins out.
But it may mean that digital rosters of the future will be smaller and the division of responsibilities between roster agencies more sharply defined.
“At a strategic level, clients need agencies like ourselves to weave everything together,” John Owen, the deputy chairman at Dare, explains. “But they will still need the specialists such as web designers and builders to implement the strategy.”
Tom Bazeley is the managing partner of Lean Mean Fighting Machine, a Unilever global roster shop that also works for Heineken in the UK. He says: “We may be a digital agency, but we don’t build websites because we’re not cut out for it. There are specialists better-equipped to do that – but they can’t do what we do.”