Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Points of View

Is freelancing the new name of the agency game?

In light of the recent spike in project-based partnerships, we ask experts Bobby Pawar, Debarpita Banerjee and Sohail Khan to give us their take on the trend.

"It’s like the boyfriend who never commits" - we were not surprised when Digiday, a New York based online trade magazine put this in the headline of a recent article about the rise in serial projects in client-agency relationships. While the article was mostly about the emerging trend in the West, things aren't much different in India.

We didn't have to go too far to look for names. Almost all the top smartphone brands including Xiaomi, OnePlus, OPPO, realme and Vivo, craft their campaigns on a project basis. That is, agency associations last till the completion of a campaign. When asked about media budgets during interviews, spokespersons of three of the aforementioned brands said that they were ready to invest all-out in a good idea that can be executed across platforms. That idea could come from any agency which was ready to pitch.

This model has developed alongside at least three others – one, the original 'retainer' model where the brand has an 'agency of record' (AOR) on a payroll. Secondly, the in-house model with brands establishing in-house creative talent instead of an AOR, which was fast and cost effective (a match for the digital environment) but faced the constraint of diverse and experienced industry talent. Thirdly, the hybrid model, where the client has an in-house team (to maintain the prolificity of communications across platforms) alongside an AOR which takes care of larger campaigns. Another experimental model that hasn't completely bloomed yet would be agency talent sitting out of client offices.

With the 'projects' model, brands seem to be fishing for ideas as each of these campaign projects are executed after dedicated pitch processes. More projects mean more pitches, multiple ideas and more agency effort. But what does this take away from the long-term client-agency romance?

Industry speak:

Bobby Pawar, chairman and chief creative officer, Havas Group India

Bobby Pawar
Bobby Pawar

It's a global thing that's seeping into India. The clients say, 'I don't need to pay a big agency lots of money every month and can engage them only for a big campaign and get smaller agencies for the everyday work'. That's a model among many others. As far as the future of the business is concerned, when you talk about building long term engagements with consumers and building brands that make a meaningful difference, there has to be a certain amount of consistency about the relationship. Sleeping with different partners doesn't lead to consistency. I don't think that there's much of a future in it. The trend might accelerate over the next three to four years but speaking of the long term, the project-based business won't be the norm.

The larger agencies benefit from the large scale accounts while also using the people for project-based work. Obviously, any new development affects and has an impact on the way of functioning. But still, most of the pitches that are happening are AOR pitches. It is a problem to participate in frequent pitches as agencies have to invest time and resources in them.

Debarpita Banerjee, president North and East, FCB Ulka, managing partner- Fuel Content

Debarpita Banerjee
Debarpita Banerjee

This trend has surely grown in India over the last few years, particularly for occasion based brands and businesses that look at more immediate ROI. That is the reason short term sales take priority over long term brand building. Of course, there are pros and cons.

While this new and emerging trend seems like an efficient work model at the beginning, clients must also bear in mind that constant pitching makes for very 'here and now' and sometimes inconsistent communication, along with creating an environment of uncertainty and lack of accountability.

There is also a hybrid model emerging, which to my mind, could be a better way forward. This could work for a scenario where an agency is empanelled and then work is given out, on a project basis, to the empanelled agencies – with or without a pitch. This model enables a consistent relationship with both the marketing and product teams, and a better understanding of the brand.

Sohail Khan, business head, SVG Columbus India (Dentsu's digital and content arm)

Sohail Khan
Sohail Khan

The fast evolving digital landscape makes it impossible for a single agency to have all resources under one umbrella. We have been receiving frequent requirements from a diverse set of clients for specific project-based work.

The requirements have been diverse, ranging from specific content solutions, digital videos for a campaign to tech solutions such as chatbots or apps.

Client associations are sometimes brief or even ongoing, depending on the nature of the project, but the onboarding process is considerably shorter than an elaborate AOR pitch process, and works best when the time is of essence.