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When creative agencies need other expertise

Posted 18 September 2014.

​by Claudia Macdonald

​​In-fighting between communications agencies to get the lion’s share of a marketing brief and the budget is nothing new. Hell, it was probably even happening before Mad Men.

But what’s a client to do when confronted with three, four or more agencies – let’s say, creative, PR , activation, digital and media – all offering to do much the same work under their own, highly skilled and very experienced roof?

In the early 2000s, 360 degree, media neutral, integrated campaigns were all the buzz in marketing and agency meeting rooms worldwide. Now, they are the norm. But, with their universal acceptance, some challenging choices for marketing and brand managers briefing in campaigns and managing agencies have arrived.

The challenge lies in just who should do what. Is it the domain of the brand agency, the specialist agency ... or a combination of them both?

Creative agencies have a strong sense of brand ownership. They invest huge amounts of people power, creative energy and money in getting under the skin of their client’s brands.

But whereas once creative agencies used this information to develop creative ideas for traditional advertising channels – television, print, outdoor, radio – now these ideas need to translate across multiple engagement platforms.

Just as it would be hard to imagine a campaign today without a digital component, so brands and agencies are realising that direct to consumer engagement (activation and experiential) and independent third party endorsement (achieved through public relations) are also integral to success.

You’d think that PR and experiential companies would be rubbing their hands in glee. “Finally, budgets we can do something with,” we smile.

But in reality the realisation that a campaign is not complete without activation and PR has meant that creative agencies have jumped into the murky depths boots and all. More and more creative agencies are offering integrated responses that combine traditional advertising with its less traditional (but been around for ages) cousins.

And it appears some are doing so successfully.

In the past three years, advertising agencies have won gold Lions for both PR and promo & activation at Cannes. Entries from PR or experiential agencies are less than 5% of the finalists. Does this mean creative agencies are better at brand engagement using activation and PR? Should marketers ditch their standalone PR/Activation companies in favour of putting it all under one brand agency roof? Or should creative agencies have sole charge of the ‘idea’ then engage activation/PR as producers to get the campaign live?

Creative agencies are well placed to deliver integrated ideas and campaigns. The multi-disciplinary make-up of an agency – with its planners, creatives, business minds, account service and production – means they have specialists who can craft a great brief, develop unique ideas and often produce them in a well thought through campaign. No wonder they are winning awards.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem with leaving it entirely in brand agencies’ hands. Many of New Zealand’s current creative agencies have two crucial failings in this area: First, they don’t all know what it takes to make truly engaging activations. Secondly, they lack understanding of what makes news.

Too many times I’ve heard of a creative agency pitching an idea to clients with the words: “Once Breakfast TV has shown the stunt, it will be repeated on One News that night to continue the hype.”

(For those who don’t know, the only time Breakfast and the 6pm bulletin will share news is when it is actually news, like Judith Collins’ fall from grace or a weather bomb.)

Leaving creative agencies in charge of creating activations and generating ideas to achieve media coverage is like letting a seven year old drive a car. They can see out the window but they can’t reach the pedals.

It is unrealistic to expect today’s lean and mean brand agencies to have the in-depth skill and expertise in all the platforms required to deliver the type of campaign currently required to get engagement.

While I believe that great campaignable ideas can come from anywhere, being able to make them work requires in depth expertise. If a creative agency develops an activation idea or one that relies on PR to succeed, then brief these people early on and be open to change because not every great idea is PRable, not all activation ideas are actionable.

In the same way that creatives listen when a commercial director makes recommendations, it is in the client’s best interests to listen when an activation expert says, “this won’t get engagement, but this will.”

If everyone regards PR, activation and social media people as experts in their fields, in the same way that photographers, producers and designers are, then the uneasy alliance between agencies will abate and clients will feel less conflicted by who to consult.

Claudia Macdonald is managing director Mango Communications, a PR, experiential and social media agency and a founding member of CAANZ PREScom