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Tackling 2021’s agency roster skills gap

Christine Downton - Observatory International Christine Downton Managing Partner, London March 5, 2021

Many marketers discovered a need for new skills in 2020. How should they revamp their rosters to plug the agency capability gap for the years ahead, asks Christine Downton, Associate Partner at The Observatory International?

In 2020 we all discovered new things about ourselves, whether it was the previously hidden ability to make bread or smarten up our back gardens.

Many marketers also discovered that they were missing important skills in their agency roster. Changes in consumer behaviour, both in terms of media consumption and retail behaviour, combined with a new business, environmental and social context, demanded a radical rethink.

2021 is the year to act on those needs. Some are already taking action, working to identify new suppliers in the areas where they now feel under-resourced. Typically, these have ranged from D2C capabilities such as subscription and loyalty agencies, a heightened role for e-commerce, CSR, influencer marketing and low-cost content creation executors.

Global skincare brand Aesop, for example has just signed up Havas CX, its first global consumer engagement agency.

One of our automotive clients recently offshored key production and operations tasks, achieving savings whilst also adding a consolidated regional production and operations agency to the roster, providing consistency and efficiency for the markets it serves within the region.

Similarly, one leading global luxury company, which is constantly striving for the best creative resources capability has restructured its roster and sourced additional resource to provide alternative creative options, including publishers, freelancers and crowdsourcing.

In all these cases, the need for new capabilities isn’t a short-term tactical fix to satisfy the needs of a particular campaign, but a long-term strategic response to changing business and consumer needs that coronavirus has accelerated.

The challenge for other brands in a similar position is how they find these new partners and integrating these new capabilities into their roster?

Finding new agency capabilities

First, finding them. As this is a new skill, it is unlikely that your teams will have the experience and agency landscape knowledge to run a pitch for this kind.  Working with an external consultant would be advisable but for brands that do decide to do this in-house then there are a number of things to consider:

  • What does good look like? Be clear about the criteria for selecting the agency.
  • What’s the right pitch process? How will it be managed and how does it need to be different to your standard agency pitch?
  • Is everyone agreed: Ensure marketing and procurement are aligned on the agency role and governance; and
  • Do you know what you want them to do? Define the scope and set an appropriate budget that will attract the best candidates.

Accommodating new agency capabilities within your roster

The second challenge is how the new agency capabilities fits within the existing roster. Budgets aren’t infinite and are shrinking for many. Marketing organisations will also have to ask what they are going to stop doing and what will be the impact on scopes of work and role for existing agencies on the roster.  This process needs to be managed carefully to ensure that inter-agency collaboration and integration remains a feature of the roster.

Rewarding and measuring your agencies

The challenge doesn’t end there, of course. Every agency needs to be measured and rewarded in a way that drives your business and aligns them with your goals? For new disciplines such as influencer marketing, traditional measurement criteria will not be appropriate.

Brands need to set clear KPIs that show that the work is effective and convinces Finance and other senior stakeholders that you are getting value for money. This needs to be clarified at an early stage and, on a day-to-day working basis, the new agency needs to be quickly integrated into performance measurement reviews to ensure that any behavioural or process issues, on either side are picked up as soon as possible.

Another area that will need to be managed is scope creep. With new and possibly innovative disciplines and capabilities, there is often a tendency for many of the marketing teams to want to use the new agency, going above and beyond the original purpose. Having a clearly segmented roster and a roster management tool or mechanism, with clarity on what each agency is to be used for is essential.

Following the turmoil of 2020, 2021 is about formalising the adjustments and changes that were necessary to rapidly respond to a changing context last year.

Making these changes a success means effectively integrating new agency capabilities into the roster. All parties – marketers and agencies – need to be clear about any new agencies’ role and function in the revamped mix.

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