Mega or a suite of agencies?

Sharon MacLeod shares a marketer’s POV on deciding between specialists and generalists.

Lunch at Holts Café or rummaging around the office for leftover pizza? Now there’s a choice.
But marketers have to make choices that aren’t nearly as simple. One of the most important of the tough choices is selecting an agency. Should you go with a mega agency that can provide all of the communications services you might need? Or is it better to select a suite of shops for their specific expertise?
The answer isn’t easy or obvious.
The mega agencies claim to have expertise in the full range of communication tools. In this day and age the list of available options is exhaustive. There are any number of combinations of advertising, branded content, in-store, promotions, public relations, media, social media, digital (and more digital), gaming, experiential, direct, packaging and it goes on and on. But can any one agency be the best at everything? I mean, really?
Probably not.
It all comes down to people, and the best people gravitate to where they can find others who are very passionate about their specialty area. Usually this is in the core strength of the agency. Usually they produce excellent work; after all if they can’t deliver exceptionally well, they aren’t going to be around long.
But competitive advantage has a short shelf life and in some cases the mega agencies have deployed their mega resources to build capabilities in specialty shop strongholds. If they focus their resources, they can develop a core adjacent strength. Ogilvy and Ogilvy One in Toronto come to mind. Janet and Nancy have long been at the heart of Dove advertising and they even made beautiful digital films. Now Ogilvy One is a serious player in digital and social media too.
In my experience it comes down to this: agencies always have one core strength. I recently reviewed many new potential agencies and every one of them was excellent at one thing and middle of the pack in everything else. If your business primarily needs one area of expertise, middle of the pack in other areas might be good enough. But for my money, good enough is never good enough.
Cost is bound to be a consideration when choosing agencies. The mega agencies have an obvious cost advantage. After all, everything is under one roof and they can seamlessly integrate activities. As my friend Brent Choi, CCO of Cundari, argues, ‘While the theory behind the suite of agencies is undeniable, it doesn’t account for the teamwork, chemistry and unified vision that occurs when you’re under one roof.’ It just stands to reason that the incidental cost of adding a service to an existing brand should be cheaper than setting up a new relationship. Mega agencies should be cheaper – but it just doesn’t work out that way.
Mega agency often means mega overhead and the additional cost of ‘running things by’ more people. A few years ago I asked two agencies to quote a small project. The 10x quote came from, you guessed it, the mega agency.
Mega agencies can develop excellent knowledge of your business and your brand. When the account team lives the brand every day there is the potential for a powerful synergy. The flip side is that even a mega account person can’t be an expert in everything. The best mega agencies make up for this by putting specialized account teams on each function. But wait, wasn’t integration going to save me money?
One indisputable advantage of the mega agencies is the ultra-important matter of accountability. Put everything under one roof and the finger pointing is dramatically reduced. Whoever coined the phrase ‘failure is an orphan but success has many parents’ must have been leading a gaggle of agencies.
So I prefer mega agencies, right? Not so much. The mega agency option is easy. They usually have an area of excellence and will be no less than good at everything else. And the finger pointing doesn’t land on your desk. But I prefer the suite of agencies for their specialities for two reasons.
First, I need the passion and expertise of people who are truly excellent at what they do. In the competitive world of consumer goods the gap between excellent and good is simply too wide.
Secondly I don’t believe in outsourcing the brand team. At Unilever we expect our brand teams to know our business and customers better than anyone. It’s our job to make tough investment decisions, select the best ideas and, yes, be fully accountable.
So mark me down for the suite of agencies. More people to take to Holts Café.

Sharon MacLeod is the marketing director for Dove, skin and household cleaning at Unilever Canada. She is best known for her expertise in consumer behaviour, her creativity, and as the driving force behind Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.