Long Read - The real reason independents are trending to full service

Ashley Regan
By Ashley Regan | 17 January 2024
Credit: Vitolda Klein via Unsplash

Independents are transitioning to full service as brands, in an overcomplicated market, demand a painless media and creative package.

While a similar service can be achieved by bringing in outside partners, full service agencies can get up to 50% more client work, according to independents AdNews spoke to.

The agencies also benefit from a de-siloed workflow, better campaign results and more team development, so it's easy to see why adland’s most popular indies - such as Howatson+Co, Thinkerbell and Kaimera - expand to full service.

More broadly, agencies of all sizes have benefited when broadening their services to offer the full package.

“We decided with the right people, we could do it well ourselves,” Chris Fraser, managing director at Intentional, told AdNews.

After 10 years of expanding Intentional’s media offering, Fraser realised they were “stuck” in a performance plateaus with clients. 

“We knew that fit for purpose creative would help unlock better results - yet we were continually getting the same type of creative or simply not enough quantity or diversification,” Fraser said

Initially Intentional tried offering creative services as an add-on for existing clients, but a feeling of “why do we need to pay extra?” was a barrier.

The agency rebuilt its packages to factor this in and kept fees competitive - today more than 50% of previously media-only clients are using Intentional’s creative services.

In return, the agency now offers a more holistic and cohesive digital strategy.

“For instance, we can harness creative trends on each platform, many brands are unaware that the ad platforms actually flag now when creative is fatigued,” Fraser said.

“The problem when creative and media is separated is that it can take weeks, if not over a month, to replace creative where a simple iteration can be turned around inside three days by our team.”


International agency shot.

Enigma started as a creative-first agency in 1992, but booking media was how the agency survived in between TV productions and campaign creative. Then Justin Ladmore and Amy Dasciano joined taking the media-service product up a level.

“Since then we’ve maintained a focus on balancing both the creative and media teams, currently our media team accounts for about 40% of our team,” Jack Mason, managing director, told AdNews.

“Often a client comes to us thinking they need or want one thing and we solve it by doing another - having the power of connecting creative, digital and media minds in a nimble way unlocks a different solution and builds a much stronger relationship with our clients.”

As a result, about 55% of Enigma’s clients do both creative and media.

Beyond client benefits, being full service allows for better team growth and development.

“Providing an environment where the team can get the opportunity to work across all areas until they find their speciality and become experts has been great and very rewarding for me,” Mason said.

“We still work with other media and creative agencies, so the full-service nature of our business makes us better collaborators - we’re more exposed to each other's worlds, and therefore more understanding, appreciative and empathetic towards what each other does.” 

Enigma team

Enigma agency shot.

Although, nothing is a breeze

Joe Frazer, head of growth, started Half Dome as 100% media and whilst after two years they moved to full-service the agency still identifies as a media agency.

“Our creative proposition is tied directly to lower funnel testing, learning, and platform best practice. We leave the big stuff to the pros and love working closely with creative agencies,” Frazer told AdNews.

Today 40% of Half Dome’s client base tap into their creative capability either via retainer or ad hoc basis, however Half Dome’s biggest challenge when switching to full-service was positioning the new capability to the market.

“We have been known as a paid media agency for so long, while it certainly complements our core product, often pitches we find ourselves on do not account for this as a capability,” Frazer said.

“And we are yet to begin actively bringing the capability to market decoupled from media – something we are exploring.”


Half Dome agency shot.

Jaime Nosworthy, CEO, started The Pistol as a technology platform that automated digital ads using stock footage for creative.

“But after a couple of years, we realised there was a clear correlation between great creative and great business outcomes, and that was the trigger for us to double-down on creative capability,” Nosworthy said.

Today, three-quarters of The Pistol’s clients purchase creative and media services together with improved client retention and satisfaction across the board.

“When you’re full-service, you can see the impact of your creative, media, and in our case, technology come together to work exponentially harder than they would being managed in silos,” Nosworthy said.

As a result, ineffective communication is the agency’s biggest hurdle.

“For example, when engaged to deliver one component of the mix, we also know what we’re capable of if the brief was centralised. So often, we’re providing data-led insights and recommendations to internal creative teams or external creative partners, only to land on deaf ears,” Nosworthy said.

“Seeing that impact on media performance is incredibly frustrating.”


The Pistol agency shot.

Jack Mason said like any agency, full service or not, the quality of the output all comes down to how different departments work together in an effective manner. 

“Connected creativity only works when the way we work is genuinely integrated. We have a process specifically designed to harness the power of full-service collaboration, bringing critical minds together when needed but also letting each team do their thing, their way,” Mason said.

“As the communications landscape is getting more complex, the number of specialist brains needed in the room is expanding and therefore this process is critical to make sure we’re using time efficiently and keeping the agility required for our clients and commercially. 

“We have also expanded to operate across three locations (Sydney, Brisbane and Newcastle) so the design of this process needs to be flexible enough to work across multiple locations.”

But this model doesn’t suit every agency or every client

Chris Parker, CEO, started Awaken with the primary focus of media but he quickly recognised the intertwined future of media and creative.

“So we evolved to encompass both and become a one-stop hub for creative storytelling and strategic media execution,” Parker said.

Today, about 60% of Awaken clients opt for combined creative and media campaigns, due to the cohesiveness and streamlined communication it brings. 

And while Parker said an indie agency can certainly succeed with a singular focus - the market is evolving. 

“Clients are looking for streamlined, cohesive solutions. A 'good' agency will be one that can either offer full-service excellence or collaborate seamlessly with partners who complement their offering,” Parker said.

“For indies looking to transition to full-service, my advice is to focus on building a team that shares your passion and believes in your vision and to invest in tools that allow for seamless integration between creative and media.”

Parker's best tip for success is great talent, however that is also the agency's biggest hurdle.

“To truly excel, we need to recruit senior and highly talented staff across both media and creative domains,” he said.

“Also to ensure that our team is always ahead of the curve we heavily invest in ongoing training and development.”


Awaken agency shot.

Joe Frazer said Half Dome’s approach has always been focussed on building products that services existing client needs. 

“We had some clients who were relying on internal graphic designers, expensive and in some cases slow traditional creative offerings, or non-specialised teams to create their performance-led creative,” Frazer said

“Especially where messaging and call to actions were key in driving outcomes, we felt that having a resource tied directly to the team planning, optimising and activation of these media channels would be beneficial – the performance outcomes confirm this. 

“And thus ours wanted it – so it is a bit of a no brainer for us.

“That said, I don’t think this is a silver bullet – it doesn’t work for some clients, and it won’t work for all agencies.”

Nosworthy, at The Pistol, encourages agency leaders simply looking for another revenue line item to seek out other avenues.

“But for those leaders who are genuinely looking to help their client partners grow, you’ll certainly be more impactful with creative as part of your offering,” Nosworthy said.

“The diversity of the offering naturally creates tension through functional leaders, so the organisational leadership must be incredibly strong, open, and collaborative to create a culture that gets the most out of the diverse team.”

Jack Mason, at Enigma, said it's tricky to say if full-service would work for everyone, “it has worked for us, but has taken years of investment, focus and passion to get it right,” Mason said.

“If you take the long-term view to do it properly, then yes because our goal is to become Australia’s most respected full-service agency.”

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