The Disappearing "Agency of Record"

By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

Are you “Agency of Record” for most of your clients?  Some of your clients?  Any of your clients?  You might have answered this question differently a few years ago, but today the vast majority of agencies today provide just a few types of service for their clients.  They may have a “full service” offering but they don’t have the “full service” clients to match.

To prove this, prepare a simple spreadsheet with your main service offerings listed across the top. Now list your major clients down the left-hand side of the sheet.  For each client, indicate which of your services they use.  If you’re like most agencies, you’ll quickly see that not a single client retains you for true full service.  Instead, they hire you for a select group of capabilities, and work with other agencies for other services.

Time to match our business model with reality

This current state of affairs presents a real problem that most agencies aren’t willing to address; that they are structured and staffed for a business model (full-service agency of record) that began disappearing several decades ago. The only marketers looking for an AOR are small companies who have neither the budget nor the sophistication to assign and allocate marketing duties to multiple agencies.

Among the larger marketers – the brands that most agencies covet – the predominant approach for working with agencies is the “Best of Breed Model” with the marketer acting integrator, surrounded by a federation of agencies who specialize in various components of the marketing mix: advertising creative, media, digital, social, experiential, CRM, etc.

So when your website and new business materials describe your agency as a “full-service, integrated marketing communications firm with a wide variety of services” you’re actually trying to sell something that the best and brightest target prospects aren’t really buying.  Again, this comes down to the type of client you want.  If you desire to work for your local bank, hospital, or car dealership, these types of organizations might in fact want “full service.”  But if you aspire to work with national brands, a full-service strategy won’t get you there.

Wanted: best in class

Time and again, the stellar marketers in North America indicate that their top criterion when selecting an agency partner is “the desire to focus on best-in-class specialists.”  They don’t expect any agency to be excellent in everything, and they find it curious if not a infuriating that agencies are not willing to name what they stand for.  Agency websites use such nebulous language that prospective clients are genuinely confused about what they agency actually does.  Or more importantly, what they don’t do.

“Wide range of expertise” is a mutually-exclusive term that deserves to join the ranks of “airline food” or “military intelligence.”  By definition, you can’t have expertise in a wide variety of areas.  And while you’re busy selling “wide,” what clients want to hire is “deep.”  Isn’t time to start selling what your clients and prospects are really buying?