How Many Agencies Does it Take to Screw in a Light Bulb?

Low_Energy_Saving_Spiral_Light_Bulb.jpg.gifI recently sat on a panel called Managing Multichannel Agency Relationships at last week’s Forrester Consumer Forum in Chicago. Sean Corcoran the panel moderator and Forrester Analyst took an interesting approach. He passed across a short list of questions for us to ponder a week ahead of time, but did little else to help us prepare. It was a pre-mediated strategy to spur more spontaneous dialogue. The two clients on the panel were myself and Tracy Benson, Senior Director of Interactive Marketing and Emerging Media at Best Buy, The two agency representatives were Chris Miller, Senior VP, Group Management Director, Digital with Draftfcb and Ian Wolfman, CMO at imc². It was quite an honor to be on the same stage as these accomplished professionals. The teams were even with Tracy and me sandwiched in between the agency guys.

What is a digital agency’s role in today’s multi-dimensional landscape? Is it more important or roughly the same as it’s been?

Putting advertising aside, there are more digital channels used by consumers than analog channels today (see graphic below). And the digital channels are newer, richer, more interactive and can be easily shared. This means your digital agency’s role is increasingly more important than ever before. The fact that technology powers the new digital channels has actually hindered exploration and adoption among the big firms. That’s because traditional marketers don’t fully understand these new channels and can easily become infatuated with the technology. Suddenly their cry becomes about the technology and that drowns out strategic conversations. “We need a Twitter stream! Get me an iPhone app, now!” Oftentimes these take the form of demands of traditional agencies or even interactive agencies who have no real depth of experience in either mobile or social.


Marketers should be engaging in proactive discussions with their current interactive agencies about emerging trends, and ask the tough questions about their on-staff talent, capabilities and experiences beyond standard web development. If they don’t have much, but you are not doing much, maybe it doesn’t matter. But I can guarantee you that some day someone in the C-Suite will be sending you an e-mail or dropping by asking you what your plans are in new areas of mobile and social. If you don’t know and your agency doesn’t know you are officially behind and your job and your business may be at risk.

The role of a digital agency in this ever-changing landscape should be a shifting from single threaded projects to multidimensional marketing ecosystems. Here is a list I think great digital agencies must be doing to meet this new challenge.

  • Expand the use of Personas, layering on mobile and social attributes
  • Move away from single-threaded design projects into a marketing and communication ecosystem
  • Fold in analytics and data more deeply and earlier on in the process
  • Use more iterative design, not an assembly line approach. More sketches before the formal design process begins
  • Help the client do something, not just say something
  • Constantly seek to get closer to the client’s marketing and brand strategy
  • Build out new skills within the agency team

Push your current agency to further educate and expand their staff skills. But you have to be committed to this new world as well. Learning and growing together can be a very good thing. If you are about to change digital agencies, include the topics of mobile and social skills, as well as channel integration experience and the points above high on your discussion list.


What makes a successful interactive agency-marketer relationship?

The same thing that makes any relationship successful; working hard at it. I had my first encounter with an agency when I was running a chain of bookstores in the 1980’s. I have always viewed my agency as an extension of my own staff. That mindset alone puts everyone on a better path. Make them a partner. Bring them into your strategic discussions and connect them with other key players around the company. Some feel that if others around the firm are going directly to the agency, then somehow control is being lost. Not true. It probably means overall that more is getting done. If you have interactive agency responsibility at your firm you need to provide guidelines and standards to both the agency and your company peers. Use the agency as outside validation to help elevate the digital IQ in your own company.

Have relationship reviews twice a year and make them frank discussions. I have three big buckets; efficiency, style and vision. Most things will fit nicely into one of those. Identify issues, but bring solutions yourself, and keep an open mind.

What are the pros and cons of working with one consolidated agency vs. several specialist agencies?

If you are a big brand you will absolutely have multiple agency relationships, no doubt about that. There is a need for big firms to get lots of things done in many areas, and the communication across departments is still sorely lacking (yes, as shocking as it may seem, silos still exist). People will go to all the trouble and work to get a new agency before they go around the company to see if an incumbent can do the job; amazing. It’s about the number of agencies, although I think fewer is better, it is about who you select.

  • Choose agencies that compliment your business and other agency models and cultures
  • Provide guidelines to everyone and be crystal clear who is leading
  • Have them present together so no one over reaches on credit
  • Connect agency personnel up and down levels and across disciplines

One thing I would steer away from are very small, specialist agencies that will struggle to hold their own in the C-Suite or with high-powered talent from the big guys. If you are hiring an agency for one small, unique initiative and don’t plan on introducing them to other external partners, think again. The interactive marketing world is highly integrated today, so if your project isn’t connected it will probably fail. Don’t create more silos, we have enough thank you.

How has social media changed the landscape and what is the role of agencies in this space?

So much has been written and said about Social Media the past year or so that I am not going to address any of that here. If you are reading this you are fully aware of how Social Media is changing things. Whether or not your company is taking is another matter entirely. When it comes to the digital agency and Social Media my position is that they should be learning and doing side by side with you. Social is about being transparent and genuine, it is intimately linked to your brand. There is no better way to get started than with the agency that knows your brand, understands digital and can execute on technology (See the answer to the first question above). I would give your current digital agency a try before looking for a specialist.

Social Media is not a project, it’s an interactive marketing tool that can influence brand perceptions, and it’s too new for anyone to claim deep expertise. I know many will disagree with me on that point, and that’s fine. In fact I would argue that the most effective Social Media can only be done by the brands themselves. Think about it. Would you offshore the essence of your brand? Wouldn’t you want to be the ones talking about your brand? But first we have got to get the silos talking.

So, how many agencies does it take to screw in a light bulb? Probably not as many as you think. More on this later.

Please chime in on this topic.

Read my summary of the 2009 Forrester Consumer Forum here.


  1. Great post Steve. You really captured a lot of the content from the panel and I think you’ve nailed a few of the big issues in the industry. I really like your comment “I have always viewed my agency as an extension of my own staff” – at Forrester we’re working to break down the marketer-agency relationship down to its simplest form (pushing aside conventional wisdom built over decades) and at the end of the day, your agency is really just an extension of your own resources. How many agencies you have, the roles they play and how effective they are often reflects the direction of the marketer. Treating them like partners rather than vendors is not a new statement but still very true. I would also add one other thing that came up in our discussion and that is the positive effect of an agency saying “no” to a client. Marketers’ expectations are often out of line with the capabilities of an agency and agencies often over-promise to ensure they keep the client relationship alive (especially in this economy). I believe marketers should expect and even reward agencies that sometimes say no because transaparency and trust are key in these relationsihps – just like in social media.

  2. Enjoyed this summary, Steve. I attended this session as well. Found it very interesting to hear how these companies were dealing with the overlap of agency capabilities and noting who was really strong vs. “yes, we can do that”. The reality is that campaigns and channel communication is becoming more integrated and while no one company can really have expertise in every area, we all need to get better at how all will work together. As a manager of many external vendors, it’s extremely hard.

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