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Full service vs specialist agencies: jack of all trades… master of one?

Helen Booth
Helen Booth

20 October 2011

There are 3 main options when choosing who implements your digital marketing campaign:

1. Inhouse
2. Full-service
3. Specialist

Which is best? I’m taking ‘inhouse’ out of the equation on this occasion as ‘insourcing v outsourcing ‘ is whole different kettle of fish.

Working for a specialist agency, I am biased. Sorry about that but having worked for both full-service digital agencies and specialist digital agencies I would ask you to consider why I am biased and why I chose to work for a specialist agency and not a full-service one.

Full service: it makes perfect sense. I have my current account, my credit card, my mortgage, my savings account and my ISA all with one bank. Why? Well, it’s not because they offer the best service, it’s not because they offer the best rates, it’s not because I get a free rubber duck (or meerkat), but it’s because it saves on admin and even if I might be spending a few more quid and losing out on better service I just don’t care. I’m anti-admin and judging by the sudden rise in sites dedicated to virtual PA’s it would seem I’m not the only one who is anti-admin.

I know that if I login to my online banking it’s all there in front of me, everything I need in one little portal. I have even convinced myself that I must get rewarded for this in some way after all agencies continually remind brands to reward customers to get better results. Surely my bank looks at my profile and thinks ‘this girl really loves  us… let’s give her a free Mercedes SLK.’

Alas, no Mercedes SLK has appeared, not even an above average interest rate has appeared – I get the same service as someone that doesn’t opt to bank under one roof. I bet the guys that deal with my mortgage don’t even speak to the guys that deal with my current account. So as my rubber duck dusts on the self I wonder “is full-service all it’s cracked up to be?”.

It’s been said many times before,  but I’ll say it again, full service agencies are ‘jack of all trades master of none’… ok, well that’s not strictly true they are often ‘jack of all trades and master of one’ or ‘two’ if they’re lucky. That is to say their platter of services normally derive from one core competency, that only in working with them, you will discover promptly which competency that is- let’s hope it’s the right channel.

Other services tend to be bolted on, outsourced to a fickle free-lancer, preferred partners in Asia or, at best, a team that sit loosely in the same building that would make Nu Vibe look like the best of friends. Great for Christmas parties as it was likely that if  you copped off with someone in the Display team you’d never bump into them if you worked in the Social Media team.

I remember receiving the SEO audit from the freelancer (I didn’t know his name by the way, he was actually known as the ‘free-lancer’) and unscrupulously inserting in into the PPC campaign then changing the tone & branding etc. It didn’t stop there,  we would always be sure to include some Social Media… ah hem… Social Commerce wisdom which consisted of the obligatory lines “social is more than just facebook & twitter…”, backed up by this Social Media image that I still see in presentations now and which still induces a migraine.

Connecting all of it came later, if at all. We might even offer one of the channels for ‘free’… I hope I don’t need to elaborate on the ‘free’ thing as I’ve already pulled out one clichéd saying in this blog.

Is there even such a thing as ‘full-service’ anyway? To really be full service and cover the plethora of different marketing channels both online and offline, then you would need to employ more people than the NHS (the largest employer in the world along with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the Indian railways and the Wal-Mart supermarket chain) and I’m not sure they’re the prime example of unification.

I’m not for one minute suggesting that channels and agencies should be boxed off. I wouldn’t wish the task of orchestrating multiple agencies on anyone, let alone charging them for the privilege but there is best of both worlds scenario.

Pick your key digital partner i.e. the agency you trust most and get them to do the hard work for you by organising the network of agencies you or they have picked and combining the reporting etc. I hope this case study is a good testament to how specialist agencies working together can achieve optimum results  That way you get specialists doing what they’re good at, learning from each other, collaborating and competing in all the right ways with minimal admin…

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