OPINION: The full-service agency debate

Ben Willee
By Ben Willee | 22 June 2012
Spinach Advertising's general manager and media director, Ben Willee.

It’s an exciting time in agency land. Media agencies are buying creative agencies, creative agencies are hiring media people, media companies are hiring creative people. It's fantastic to see a healthy debate about collaboration and the resurgence of the full-service model.

Along the way everyone got into the content business. As things became ridiculously complicated, clients asked us for a view. We wrote articles, presentations, blogs, and now each agency has a legitimate reason to argue that they should lead the process and have a greater share of the budget:

1. Web delivered new levels of accountability.
2. Creative had more channels to deliver big ideas.
3. Media used mathematics to better understand the effect of advertising.
4. Even PR had a legitimate argument. (Buggered if I can remember what it was ....)

Do you think this helped? Absolutely not.

Are we seeing the pendulum swing back towards a full service model? Is it a good thing? Yes and absolutely. It delivers transparent collaboration.

I am fortunate. I started my career before unbundling was the norm. I have seen the pros and cons of a full-service versus independents. I am firmly in favour of the full-service model.

Before the cynics start crapping on about being self-serving, (Spinach is a full-service agency) remember that I have run media agencies since the early noughties. Often I based a senior person at the creative agency with the intention of improving transparent collaboration.

Before I explain why, let's run through the history of unbundling. It made sense when bigger was better and media wasn't very complicated. You needed a big budget to get a better deal. It was logical that agency groups formed media agencies.

So media was moved down a floor and given their own reception, but they were still in the building and relationships remained strong, people only had to go upstairs to make things happen together. Then things went too far, media moved out the building and to their own funky office in the next suburb. As they won and lost accounts the connection with creative dwindled. Was it empire building? Arrogance? Who cares, the bad thing is there’s a generation of media and creative people who know very little about what each other does. That can’t be good for clients.

The laws of unintended consequences kicked in. Something that was supposed to help clients made their lives more difficult.

Suspicions grew, trust declined. So we get back to the importance of transparent collaboration.

So what's the good news? Transparent collaboration is not complicated. It's about open and honest communication. Something we're supposed to be good at, right?

So if you're not fortunate enough to work in a full-service environment, here are my tips to better collaboration with your partners:

1. Meet regularly, with and without clients.
2. Be honest. Admit weaknesses, celebrate strengths. Provide constructive feedback.
3. Draw on the experienced people in the agency. Those who have been around know there often isn’t a silver bullet and are more   confident to openly collaborate.
4. Talk to the client. Make them understand the little things they do can to help improve collaboration.

People who have been around this business for a while will sometimes get a glint in their eye and say something like, "When things are really working in this business you feel like you can change the world".

If you collaborate properly, sometimes you do.

Ben Willee
General Manager and Media Director
Spinach Advertising

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