Is Agency Specialization Truly a Joke?By Kevin Jennings 

Marketers were stunned last year when media executive Tom Goodwin declared in AdAge that agency specialization had failed.

Agency specialization had proven “slow, expensive, repetitive” and has shown “disregard for consumers and the modern world,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin wasn’t entirely wrong.

The practice of splitting agencies into channels or categories that are no longer distinguishable—like digital, mobile, media, and social—is broken, but the solution isn’t for every agency to be full-service firm.

Instead, we must approach agency specialization in terms of specific expertise and value proposition.

Agencies define themselves through their unique offerings, and even agencies that begin as generalist firms tend to specialize over time.

Those that try to be everything to everyone tend to lose focus in three ways:

  • Unclear value proposition. Marketers want to work with agencies that can guarantee value specific to their brands’ needs, but do-it-all firms often struggle to demonstrate how their general expertise matches with a client’s specific challenges. Specialized agencies, on the other hand, pursue only projects and relationships that suit their companies’ strengths and reinforce their value propositions.
  • Broad, but shallow portfolios. Broad portfolios tell many stories, but they don’t tell them well or at any significant length. Generalist agencies often have diverse portfolios of work, but struggle to establish depth in any specific competency. In contrast, specialized firms establish credibility through a number of similar projects suited to their areas of interest and expertise. Their portfolios align perfectly with their value propositions.
  • Unproven talent pools. If every project an agency takes is a metaphorical snowflake—meaning each is so different in scope that there’s no discernible theme or consistency—then there’s a good chance the agency’s creative, strategic, and tech teams have never done the same job twice. Efficiencies and expertise that would be gained through repetition are lost. Specialized teams, however, hone efficient systems for collaboration and workflow because they repeatedly solve similar problems.

For example, the emergence of mobile—a vertical many general agencies are unfamiliar with—has brought new urgency to the debate about agency specialization.

Within the next five years, all brands will need to embrace mobile to effectively reach consumers.

Firms must develop clear value propositions around different aspects of mobile, and they’ll need to deliver intuitive mobile products faster than ever.

Agency Specialization and the Right Fit

Whether you’re ramping up your mobile strategy or need agency expertise with another platform, you want to find a competent partner for your projects.

Expect to interview several firms when you need to contract a project, and keep an open mind.

You’re looking for a team that meets your exact needs, so the right fit might not be the best-known or largest agency.

When evaluating firms, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What problem am I really trying to solve? Identifying the core problem is the first—and most difficult—step when choosing a partner. Marketers often send agencies requests for proposals that address the symptoms without identifying the true problems. For instance, a brand may see lagging online sales, high cart abandonment, or low retention and issue a request for proposal to redesign its website, despite that it likely needs user experience optimization, a smart A/B testing strategy, and continuous improvement rather than starting anew.
  2. What skills does the agency need? The skills agencies claim to have and those they actually possess don’t always match. More importantly, what an agency is capable of and what it has proven competency in through its portfolio are often different. Part of your agency vetting process should be sharing your identified problem and challenges with your prospective agency partner. Listen to how the agency would approach the solution, who from its team would deliver the solution, and which previous projects grant it credibility.
  3. What type of samples do I want to see? When you’re contracting an agency, you want to know it can produce strategic, quality work. Ask to see a variety of samples that reflect the strategy and range of abilities your project requires. Look for competency, not just capability: Repeated past success is the best guarantor of future success.

Each brand’s marketing needs are distinct, so the agency choice is rarely black and white.

But even if we haven’t perfected how agencies specialize, we shouldn’t cast agency specialization aside as a failure. Brands’ specific problems are best solved by tailored expertise, not general competency.

Agency specialization will succeed because it forces brands to articulate their needs, look beyond obvious partners, and choose the agencies best equipped to solve their unique challenges.

image credit: shutterstock 

Kevin Jennings

Kevin Jennings is the vice president of strategy at Fuzz, a leading product agency based in Brooklyn, New York, that creates beautiful, usable products engineered to perform for brands including Forever 21 and Anheuser-Busch InBev. Kevin studied at Clemson University and has served as global strategy director for Ralph Lauren.

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