Every three years or so, advertisers decide to put all their media and marketing into a single agency network. Three years later, once they’ve seen their performance in the different marketing channels eroded, they head once more for the specialists.

It has been going on since the 80s, and it would be nice to see the cycle broken...

We are in such a cycle right now. A test case might be Lloyds/HBoS. Driven by a need to hammer down costs as hard as possible and a large company integration to manage, it reviewed its agency relationships. Now Lloyds is in the process of firing all its specialist agencies having handed its entire media budget to Mediage:CIA or, essentially, the WPP group.

I expect that, in about three years’ time, the company will be repitching its business and probably handing it out to specialists who will almost certainly deliver better results, though at a higher cost.

The trend sparks new debate about whether it is best to stick with specialist agencies or, given the increasing desire for integrated strategy (and scale efficiencies), hand the whole shebang to a single supplier.

For what it’s worth, my view is that the age-old economic principle of division of labour is rather crucial here. By their very nature, specialists will be able to deliver much better results in their chosen discipline. It is all they do every day and the entire business is built around doing that thing well. The price of such excellence is, firstly, price, but also the lesser promise of integrated strategy and execution. If we take price first then, clearly, it is a simple matter of doing the sums. As long as the results are better enough to outweigh the extra costs then job done. Integration is more complicated.

My view is that specialists should indeed be the chosen path, but that clients must ensure that those silos are connected top and bottom, in planning and in performance measurement. It is surely the role of the client, supported by their technology and partners, to accept the challenge that integrating the work of separate specialists demands. By taking the lead on the business’ marketing goals and the strategy to deliver on them, the client marketer can manage a variety of agencies into working together, to encourage them to be team players, to share in the advertisers’ goals and be rewarded both for their own work and the performance of the ‘team’.

That’s the top. At the bottom is the unified reporting that is required to measure the performance of all. Technology can help enormously here. There are various ways of joining all online channels to be reported in the same way and place, but there are also tools for joining that to offline measurement, WPP (yes, WPP) has quite a cool one called the Kantar Group run by the former founder of Dynamic Logic Nick Nyhan.

I expect all this to be a key theme of Econsultancy’s own Jump event later in the year – that is that integration is possible, whatever mix of specialists and networks you use, as long as strategy and reporting are unified. It would certainly be nice to break the long-running and not necessarily productive cycle of pitch reviews.

Paul Cook

Published 11 January, 2010 by Paul Cook

Paul Cook, the founder of RedEye and TagMan, is a contributor to Econsultancy.  

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Comments (15)

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Joe Friedlein

Joe Friedlein, Director at Browser Media

Great post Paul and one that rings so many bells for us (as a specialist search agency).

There is no doubt that running everything through one single agency does address many issues that are often felt by clients (notably the pain of dealing with multiple agencies who tend to blame each other for any shortcomings) but it hardly ever works out as well as the client would like as the 'jack of all trades' approach rarely delivers the success that specialist agencies can achieve.

You state "My view is that specialists should indeed be the chosen path, but that clients must ensure that those silos are connected top and bottom, in planning and in performance measurement." - I couldn't agree more and this is how the most successful agency / client relationships work.

The client should be the oil that keeps all the cogs running smoothly and efficiently, but that isn't always easy and some specialists adopt a defensive attitude and try to portray their skills as a black art rather than try to help educate the client (this is especially true of search).

Our best relationships are with those clients who totally 'get it' and just need some extra hands on decks or specialist knowledge / expertise - if there is a knowledge gap in-house, we always try as hard as we can to plug that gap so that we can all work together to achieve the success that we all want.

There are few agencies who can truly offer the depth of experience and knowledge across all disciplines, so there are definitely risks with going down the 'single agency' route. I believe that the gap is narrowing, but it still exists.

What will be interesting this year is to see if there is further consolidation in the agency world, as specialist agencies are absorbed into bigger organisations. Or perhaps we will see more official partnerships between specialist agencies who can offer a complete service to their clients?

over 8 years ago


Nigel Cooper (Qube Media)

Great article. As I run a specialist agency, I obviously fall down the on the side of specialism.I completely agree that with this route, a client must ensure that they connect up their agency with the other agencies and activity they are using, however.

It is absolutely more effective to have all of your 'silos' aware of each other and working together - using various specialists shouldn't change this.

As a Social Media agency, we see a lot of clients first using integrated agencies or other types of digital agency before coming to us when this isn't proving effective - but we always insist of working with exisitng PR and marketing teams. If we didn't, there would be too many inefficiencies or, worse, we could end up doubling up or working against each other - not in the clients best interest.

over 8 years ago

Sonia Kay

Sonia Kay, Consultant at 120 Feet

Great post Paul.  Agree with all the comments above and (as someone batting for the specialists) I would also add that sometimes an added benefit of specialists over networks is agility.  How often have projects stalled in large networks whilst an idea is being over-analysed? 

over 8 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

Reminds me of the hi-fi debate - do you buy a system that is "all in one" or do you buy separate parts (speakers, CD player, amplifier etc.) and wire them up?

Purists have always argued the latter gives the best sound quality but is more expensive. I'd agree.

Arguably the most important part of this is the actual "wiring" i.e. how easy is it to join up the separate parts. Because the easier the wiring, the more the argument swings in favour of getting specialists and joining them up.

In the case of hi-fis the wiring, in the dark past, was sometimes bespoke (think Dell power cables...) which made the joining up a pain. Once it was all standardised then the wiring became easy.

There's somewhat of web tech parallel here with web services, APIs, XML etc. In the early days of web sites it wasn't easy to share data and services online. Now it's getting easier and easier and cloud computing is accelerating things further.

"All in one" web platforms, like Broadvision, have arguably struggled as 'best of breed' services (in 'web 2.0' do-one-thing-well style) have emerged which really do integrate easily. Think SalesForce.com's app exchange or the alliances between email platforms and web analytics etc.

In the world of agencies then I think we need to think about the 'wiring' if it is to be easy to work with multiple specialists. What is this 'wiring'? A few suggestions:

- Standards & Best Practice. If there were more accepted ways of working then it would be much less painful to brief and manage multiple agencies. But this is hard as the medium/sector continues to change and evolve so quickly. As far as I'm aware, despite the rise of Agile project management methods for web projects, there is no accepted 'way to work' for digital?

- Training & Education. If clients and agencies are generally more skilled and experienced then they are more likely to be able to work together in a mature and effective way. 

- Technology. As Paul mentions there are some technologies which can facilitate the ease of working together. Particularly around collaborative working and the sharing of common data sets. 

What else would help with the wiring?

over 8 years ago

Justin Hayward

Justin Hayward, CEO at Make It Rain

Nice post Paul.  I've been through this cycle and many a frustrating ciient pitch to lose out to a network agency who will 'throw in search for free'!  Having been in both network and specialist agencies, in my experience, the integration between all parts of the network agency are not as you would be lead to believe and in cases even more disparate than using multiple agencies. 

From experience, network agencies will slice up media budget into those areas that are most profitable for the group.  This is a natural thing to do, although can be disastrous for the client. 

To break this cycle, the enabling of technologies to aid integration between specialist agencies is potentially the best way forward.  Paul's Tagman technology is a great move toward this as we have just implemented on one of our clients.

Unfortunately, it's not always the people who 'get it' who make the final decision in larger clients, but procurement departments who are driven to save as much on the deal upfront with no recompense for poor performance later on. 

over 8 years ago


Ben Potter

As an agency, we have both won and lost business as a result of this issue. We would consider ourselves a specialist so when losing out to a large, multi-disciplined agency, the client will usually cite two reasons, both of which I believe there to be strong counter arguments:

Communication: the client is finding it difficult to manage a number of agencies and believes it will be easier to communicate with just one. What they forget of course is that that inter-team communication within one large agency can be just as bad, if not worse, than trying to communicate with a number of agencies, especially where a traditional silo team structure is in place.

I therefore agree with the point raised above that it is ultimately the responsibility of the client to establish appropriate communication channels and processes. Therefore, where communication problems do exist means it does not necessarily come down to the number of agencies being managed but instead the processes that are in place (or not as the case may be) to manage communication, tracking, etc.

Knowledge: a client moves to a large, multi-disciplined agency believing that their knowledge will be greater than the specialist. In my view it is nigh on impossible for a large agency to be absolute experts in every area necessary to a successful digital strategy.  Having won business from multi-disciplined agencies (and questioned the client why they moved) the response is always the same; the single supplier was good in one or two areas, but not in the others. We often hear that in the race to offer the full range of digital disciplines the teams in single supplier agencies are quickly cobbled together with little backbone or process in place to deliver a solution as well as the specialist.

Great article and a debate that will run and run.

over 8 years ago


Bertie Stevenson

Are any big agencies out there keen to defend their side of the discussion?

over 8 years ago

Dominic Geary

Dominic Geary, Managing Partner at Carat (Leeds)

Having worked on both sides of the fence within a specialist and network environment I can impartially see the pros and con's of both business models.

In essence neither model is perfect, and client’s requirements change. What's important to one client may not be a priority to another. That is why we've seen this continuous cycle and we'll continue to see this in the future.

In my experience clients want integration, specialist insight and all without having to pay through the nose for it! In some cases Networks deliver on this and so can certain specialists. However, some specialists (not just digital) fail to see the bigger picture, which is the wider marketing communication mix and its impact on their activity.

I disagree with Paul when he says it’s the role of the client to drive integration, most of our clients expect us to develop a cohesive joined up approach with other marketing suppliers. So we speak as one and are ultimately an extension of their marketing department.

In terms of delivering the best results, common sense would suggest that specialists should always win. This isn't the case as specialists can lack the vertical insight that a client requires; the investment in research/tools and probably most importantly the holistic view on how the integration of different comms activities impacts upon the overall campaign performance.

Integration is possible but it isn't easy irrespective of whether you use a network or a number of specialists.

over 8 years ago

Tony Barker

Tony Barker, Director & Founder at eEnablement - Online Interim Management & Consultancy

Agree - good article and one I am very interested in worked client side for over ten years across a range of organisations and sectors. Aside from the cost/efficiency debate (let's face it it is far easier for Marketing/Online Directors to demonstrate to their board/FD directors that they are reducing costs through consolidation) - think real crux is that consolidation makes the client job easier! Either because they don't have the necessary expertise in house to manage and work with "specialists", or because responsibility for integration can then be passed to the agency. As you can tell when it comes to online - whether it is media, creative, e-commerce, web development - I am in the specialist camp!

over 8 years ago

Peter Bell

Peter Bell, Managing Director at Fuse Lead Marketing

All good points and as a lead marketing specialist, I think the specialists are better placed to offer better value for money. However to be more competitive with network agency's, they have a responsibility to be aware of the clients other specialists and be prepared to make compromises to synch up (i.e. the wiring) so the client doesn't suffer the obvious downside of using specialists.  As already mentioned, integrating technology is a great way to give the client the necessary birds eye view of marketing strategy and go some way to offering a network style approach.

It's a case in point with lead generation, as one creative agency commented that lead gen normally gets lumped in with other stuff which they'd rather not pitch for but are not going to turn it down. Not exactly a refined approach!

The expertise of the client is demonstrated in deciding what level and mix of specialism is required to get the best bang for their buck.

I believe the more specialist agencies work harder at virtually linking-up (creating specialist partner newtorks), the less clients will feel they have to consider using large agencies to get the job done.

over 8 years ago

Steve Richards

Steve Richards, MD at Yomego

In my experience, specialist agencies thrive when there is a knowledge gap among the big boys. But as time ticks on, and they lose budget to specialists, they move to bridge the gapvia aggressive headhunting or acquisition.

Ultimately clients tend to lose out as the same feverish, innovative spirit alive among smaller specialists is inevitably diffused in Bigtime Corporateville.

The big agencies tend to form 'specialist divisions' to allay clients' fears, but the same level of excellence is rarely replicated. This happened with digital media buying a decade or so ago and the social media sector is currently going through the same cycle.  

But client expectations have never been higher and ROI has never been more measurable. So the cycle Paul mentions might get broken and the days of all-seeing, all-knowing big players might be numbered.

The key in my view, shared by many commenters, lies with the client joining the skillsets together around a set of common goals. Technology has made this easier, further puncturing the argument of the one-stop-shops.

But I too am biased. Would be good to get a client perspective or two.... 

over 8 years ago


Charles Kirchner

As an interested observer, my take on the Lloyds Banking Group pitch was that it was as much about depth of capability, access to top people, quality thinking and innovation etc as it was about cost. I’ve certainly heard good things from the agency/industry chat about the way in which it was managed – very complex and challenging but also very fair and transparent.

Indeed, given the scale of the integration challenge – two huge banks with multiple brands, stakeholders, infrastructures, processes etc, I would be amazed if they had taken the specialist route, particularly given that improved results from ‘specialists’ is far from proven.

While I agree that the full service versus specialist debate is far from won by either side, I think Paul’s use of Lloyds as an example of poor practice is ill informed.

over 8 years ago

Paul Cook

Paul Cook, Director at NCC Web Performance

Hi Charles,

Not sure I intended Lloyds as an example of best practice, more an example of the trend. My view is that the specialists in Lloyds/HBOS' employ - their individual SEO agencies, for example - could have continued to work independently and then competed for the combined business?

Given the absolutely critical nature of SEO to the business - again, just as an example - did it really decide MEC could do a better job - or did it just dump search into the gigantic conglomerated media spend?

Either way, I'm saying that, as long as planning at the top and reporting at the bottom are joined up, advertisers can pick whomsoever they choose.

over 8 years ago

Paul Cook

Paul Cook, Director at NCC Web Performance

Er - oops. Obviously I mean 'poor practice'...

over 8 years ago


Alain Portmann


Good article on the endless debate of specialist agency vs. network agency. Like everything in advertising there is a ""mix and match" between reality and perception.

The proposition of network agencies is integration - having a single point of contact for all marketing activities is not only a best practice but more cost efficient and managed by the best pool of talent available. What is the reality? Very few network agencies can deliver on that promise - only a few do it well.  

The proposition of specialist agencies is depth of knowledge - having an organization that is 100% dedicated to a specific channel will drive better results and deliver better service. What is the reality? Very few specialist agencies have the influence to impact the larger marketing picture of clients with that knowledge - only a handful do it well.  

The proposition of good agencies, be it a network, specialist, independent, VC funded or organically funded is collaboration. Having worked on both sides of the fence and having launched my own agency, I find collaboration key. Collaboration with clients, partners, publishers, vendors and other agencies. The reality? Collaboration can seem a threatening concept to many agency executives (even within large network agencies) obsessed with the idea of their client speaking to another agency. Collaboration can seem like a messy affair for a lot of clients.

Very rarely will a good client remain with an agency because of its brand or positioning in the marketplace. A a good client will gravitate and surround himself with good people, handpicked from different backgrounds, companies and skill sets.

over 8 years ago

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