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Simon Says: The importance of independent marketing agencies

Apr 6, 2023

More and more independent marketing agencies are being acquired by larger networks, but is this trend good for clients and the marketing industry as a whole? I’m not convinced.

According to the groups themselves, these acquisitions are about offering clients a more integrated solution – but dig a little deeper and you’ll quickly find that the priorities are often centred around increasing revenue and meeting their financial and management goals.

At their heart, these acquisitions are about REcoupling creative agencies with content production companies – even though marketing departments have been reaping the many benefits of DEcoupling for some time.

It’s easy to see why these marketing networks would frown on decoupling. After all, you don’t want to see your clients’ money trickling away to third-party agencies when you can gorge on it yourself. But that’s only part of the story.

Don’t lock me in!

“Why would you want your creative production to go through your creative agency, rather than choosing your own independent production supplier?”

Enterprises are notoriously fickle when it comes to creative agencies, and this is no bad thing. Creatives working on the same account for any length of time are likely to grow stale – or are reluctant to sacrifice their previously successful creative ideas in the name of innovation.

This is nothing to do with the people themselves – an agency that plays safe with a brand they’ve supported for three or four years can erupt with creativity when given a new client to work with.

This is just how creativity works. Even the Beatles only managed around eight years of unrivalled creativity. Other artists have had greater longevity, but how many did their best work in their second decade?

The upshot is that brands don’t want to be locked into a creative agency. They want the flexibility to shake things up every now and then. Ad agencies don’t always like it, but looking from the outside, their creativity probably benefits from having a good churn of clients.

Creative production is an entirely different matter. Long-term relationships can be wholly positive, as content studios don’t provide the original slap-in-the-face creative. They’re your producers more than your artists, and these can get better as they age.

Continuously honing processes, increasing content automation and forming symbiotic bonds with your account teams are what you expect from a production studio worth its salt. A good content production agency is like a good dentist – if you manage to find one, you’ll most likely stick with them.

Given this, why would you want your creative production to go through your creative agency, rather than choosing your own independent production supplier (or group of suppliers)? When it comes time to choose a new ad agency, do you really want all the aggro of being forced to switch to whichever content adaptation studio is attached to your new lead agency?

Claimed advantages

“Will the quality be better, or the speed faster, or the service more scalable than choosing your own trusted independent production partners?”

The party line with these sort of network acquisitions is that the move will deliver high-quality content at speed and at scale. It very probably will. But will the quality be better, or the speed faster, or the service more scalable than choosing your own trusted independent production partners and unifying the agencies through intelligent processes and martech? I shouldn’t think so.

There’s also the promise of a simple, unified marketing technology. Now, the platform in question may very well do a job for you – but do you really want your choice of martech determined by which advertising agency you’re with this year?

That’s as absurd as having your mobile provider determined by your electricity supplier.

The irony is that individual agencies within the big advertising networks aren’t terribly keen on being tied to specific production houses either. They tend to have relationships with their own creative production and channel partners and would often rather work with those than their in-house factories.

Marketing on its head

“These integrated network solutions force companies to approach their marketing from the wrong direction”

Of course, there’s no issue with these big marketing networks having creative, content production and technology under their umbrella. The problem comes when you don’t offer one without the other – for example, when you provide technology that is dependent on your service offering or push your creative agency clients into using your own adaptation service.

Having fewer independents is a blow to brands who want a wide range of options when it comes to choosing their marketing partners. However, the biggest issue is that these integrated network solutions force companies to approach their marketing from the wrong direction.

With the model put forward by the big agencies, you would first choose your lead agency; this determines your choice of production partner, which in turn determines your choice of technology.

This is wrong in every way.

If you’re a marketer, you should be sorting out your martech first – martech that is configured to your exact way of working and is 100 per cent supplier-agnostic, rather than tying you in to any specific supplier.

Not only do you need the flexibility to easily plug any supplier into (or out of) your tech, but with the importance of data to marketing, there’s no way you can afford to let your data sit in a system owned by your supplier.

This has been Martech Rule One since printers cobbled together cheap software where you could upload your files, then refused to give you your files when you tried to fire them for constantly piling on hidden costs. Choose martech where you own all the data.

Your tech and services don’t have to come from the same place to ensure a smooth-running, integrated marketing landscape. The right tech will do that for you.

Cost dangers

“The key to running an efficient, cost-effective marketing operation is choice”

There are also concerns around adaptation costs when you don’t decouple. Big agency networks certainly have the scale to reduce production costs (if they want to stifle competition from independents), but any savings for the client are likely to be short lived.

In our long experience in content production, whenever we’ve encountered clients whose advertising agency also does the adapts, production costs are often 20–40 per cent higher than an independent content agency would charge.

The key to running an efficient, cost-effective marketing operation is choice – having the flexibility to choose your technology, production partners and lead agencies independently.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get all three from the same company if that works best for you, just as long as you are free to switch any one of the three to another supplier, without it negatively affecting the other two.

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