Is the 'full-service creative agency' a relic of the past?

By Karan Kumar , Fabindia, Mumbai | In Marketing | November 28, 2017
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Fabindia's Karan Kumar on re-writing the brand-agency relationship code.

Having 'professionally' grown up in an environment in which agency partners were equal stakeholders in the business of the brands they serviced, I have always been a firm believer that all custodians must 'sit on the same side of the table.' A table that was full of ideas, packed with passion, one that drove brand momentum. Ideas that came pooled in from 'Creative', 'Planning' and 'Account Management' teams. Ideas which were owned collectively, but nevertheless had individuals responsible for their performance and impact. Those are some of my fond memories of how full-service creative agencies operated back in the day. Thankfully, some still do even today - but they do so only in the conventional media and communication ecosystem.

Karan Kumar Karan Kumar

But times, and with it, media ecosystems are changing. Changing at a pace that is faster than the speed at which people comprehend those changes, leave alone being prepared for it. While this holds true for brands and their agency partners alike, it is especially ominous for the agency that was always the marketers' first port of call to 'crack something' that they could not by themselves.

In today's times where the digital and social media ecosystem drives large parts of a brand's engagement with customers, I have (and with some pain) found the very concept of a 'full-service creative agency' being challenged. While most conventional-media creative agencies continue to claim, with unabashed passion, how they have re-invented and re-tooled themselves for current times, I have found the proof to be missing almost every time I tasted the pudding!

As I see it, these times and emergent media environments require single-minded resolve on the part of any creative agency if it even hopes to lay a genuine claim to being a full-service creative partner to a brand. I've identified four critical knowledge pillars. I call these pillars the 4 Cs. They are: (1) Content Creation, (2) Content Management, (3) Content Publishing (which includes media), and, (4) Content Performance. Each requires sustained intellectual investments of the kind that leads to the development of a specialised skill-set that's anchored in the knowledge of platforms and their performance metrics. And therein lies the problem.

While the creative agencies of the former times were seldom pushed by their clients into really upgrading their skill sets, today, for these same agencies to continue to be recognised as genuine partners, they must (and often pre-empting their client's knowledge) be ahead of the curve! Just like in the past, the full-service agency must take the lead on the creative thought, on how it can be produced and where it can be communicated and finally, on how its impact could be measured across platforms it's executed on. For the relationship to foster it is imperative for the creative partner to take on this mantle in total and not just in parts for this new media ecosystem our brands and we inhabit.

That is where I find the challenge. Having worked across multiple categories, with multiple audience segments and, of course, with numerous creative and communication partners, I haven't found even one agency, despite all claims being made, that has been able to deliver all 4 Cs.

And maybe it is here, in this context, that we have seen the birth of 'the network' - one that aims to challenge the concept of the full-service agency! I think it is pretty evident for all to see: 'networks' are seeking to replace what could now be considered an idiom of yesteryears and at a pace more aggressive than ever before. The 'network' succeeds where the full-service agency fails - in putting together (mostly through acquisitions) a set of individual sub-agencies with their own un-homogenised sub-cultures and specialist skill-sets, offering comprehensive capability to a client that isn't being offered by a full-service agency any more.

Just like the full-service agency of yesteryears, they too offer a 'single account servicing manager' (or team) who would be the only person you need to deal with irrespective of your multiple needs - a promise that always had to be taken with not a pinch but a dollop of salt! They offer one client servicing manager to front all engagements internally with creative, planning and design.

But admittedly, while that formula may have still worked to a certain extent within the agency, the equivalent of it in the 'network' environment does not. Starting with different (and equally ambitious) balance sheets, each agency in the 'network' also has a different culture and sets of people who lead it. This can turn an advantage at one level on to its head when it comes to cross-team functioning!

Therefore, where does all of this leave a brand as 'a client' today? Well, it leaves them shopping for individual 'hot-shops' and 'boutique' agencies which may or may not have real estate on the high-streets of the 'networks'. Remember how the very same labels, not very long ago, had threatened the traditional full-service agency, albeit in a slightly different context?

Well, it appears they have come back to haunt them once more! It is now another debate whether the 'network' is the new 'full-service agency' and the entity that we had known by that name for the longest time, is now truly a relic of the past, given the new digitised media ecosystems we live in.

(The author is head of brand and marketing at Fabindia)

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