The Final Decade of the Single-Practice Agency


Everyone’s talking about it. The end of the marketing silo. The rise of the full-stack marketer. Buyers expect a seamless experience from a brand, which means online, offline, mobile and social all converge under a single marketing strategy. Paid, owned and earned tactics all complement and reinforce each other.

But what does this all mean for the client-agency relationship? How do we evolve in the era of integrated marketing?

Set business goals, not channel-specific goals

As a starting point, we all need to be better at focusing on the end goal. What is the business impact we are aiming to achieve? Too often this intention gets derailed at the RFP process. We still see a surprising number of RFPs in which the stated goals are tactical at best. So the objective is to increase awareness. Among which audience? Why? What is the desired business outcome? Driving demand by getting a seat at the table more often? Or addressing a perception issue among shareholders to improve valuation? While it is the agency’s responsibility to ask these questions, it is the client’s to be able to answer them. Too often the answers show a lack of internal understanding about the objective. The reason? Usually it’s because the in-house communications team is not connected enough to the sales and marketing groups.

It is also becoming increasingly important for agencies to understand their clients’ customer journey. At every stage of the journey, what are the likely preconceptions, concerns and objections? Campaigns need to be developed to address each stage. For example, top of funnel awareness can be improved with a campaign designed to reach customers as they experience the problems your client solves. Using keyword analysis you can anticipate the issues they are most concerned about and develop relevant content. A multi-channel approach allows you to syndicate that content through traditional media placements, your own social channels and paid social and mobile media. You might also use this content for webinars or physical events and, of course bring it all together with a targeted email campaign. This single example requires SEO, content, media relations, direct marketing, events and advertising teams to collaborate at every step.

Customer-centric replaces channel-centric marketing

Of course, the changing nature of marketing means in-house teams are evolving too. Where marketing teams may have been segmented by product or channel in the past, they must now be organized by customer. The idea that each marketing group could have its own agency, is quickly becoming redundant. How will you ensure a handshake between the thought leadership campaign targeting your C-level customers, and the paid amplification of that content? You do it by bringing it all under an agency that has both multiple skills and focused domain expertise relevant to your customer base.

The challenge for agencies is how to balance the need for specialist skills with a generalist approach. Full-stack marketers are rare, so clients need to complement their own in-house capabilities with skilled expertise within their agency. Yet, for efficiency’s sake, they also want strategists and account managers who can lace complex multi-channel campaigns together into a cohesive whole.

Specialists are from Mars, generalists are from Venus

Meanwhile, in agency land, specialists need leadership from someone who understands their field. They want career paths that allow them to go deeper rather than broader. Different specialists may flourish in different working environments and charge different day rates. Try managing a graphic designer, analyst and crisis comms specialist in the same way and the results will be interesting to say the least.

Advertising agencies have traditionally addressed this by separating creative, planning and account management teams. PR agencies have favored a more vertical approach with generalists handling strategy, content, media relations and account management all at once. In the brave new world of integrated marketing, a dominant model has not yet been found.

At LEWIS, we’re favoring a networked model. We have teams specializing in PR, digital, marketing and advertising. Then we are developing the account manager level across all units to oversee fully integrated campaigns. Our Marketing Services group was recently expanded to give clients and teams access to broad marketing strategy for any campaign. Project teams are organized around clients and work as one, to deliver results across every channel.

We predict that we will see the end of the single-practice agency by the end of the decade. Holding companies, which have promulgated the specialist agency model for years because it allows them to maximize revenues across multiple agency brands, will find it the hardest to change. The new normal will be agencies that are organized by client, be it by sector (technology, consumer) or by stage (emerging companies, global companies). These agencies will have a flexible, single P&L structure that allows seamless collaboration between teams without revenue or turf wars getting in the way.

It will take an investment in training and significant organizational shift. But it is the right thing to do for clients, their customers and the future of communications.