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The agency dilemma – generalist or specialist agency?

Wide angle short of a creative agency office space with people at open plan desks and a sofa / TV relaxed meeting area

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Why read this? : We explore the key influences on whether to choose a generalist or specialist agency. Learn the pros and cons of each, plus a way to get the best of both. Read this to help you decide between using a generalist or specialist agency.

The most important relationship in marketing is between a brand and its customers.

However, there’s another key relationship you also need to manage and that’s your relationship with your marketing agencies. Managing this well is vital to your success. 

Ask most businesses about their agency relationships and they’ll likely say it’s “complicated”. Check out the marketing magazines’ news feeds. Clients change agencies all the time.

Group of game pieces following one game piece with added caption - we love you

Monogamous and long-lasting loyal relationships between clients and agencies are rare. There’s more polyamory going on than at your average suburban swingers’ party. 

Here’s the thing though. As the client, you’re the one in control when it comes to marketing agencies. You’ve got the money and there’s lots of choice on where to spend it. So how do you navigate your way through the agency “dating pool” to make sure you find an agency (or agencies) to satisfy your needs?

Marketing Agency Management Process

Our marketing agencies  guide outlines the 5 most common steps in hiring a marketing agency :-

  1. Define needs.
  2. Research or pitch.
  3. Brief.
  4. Activation.
  5. Evaluation.

We’ve previously covered the different types of agencies you come across when you define your needs and research what’s available. As part of that, you often have to choose between using a generalist or specialist agency.

Marketing agencies management process

Generalists offer a broad range of services. Specialists offer a very specific type of service. They’ll both make strong cases for why you should choose them. This article explores that choice in more detail.

A client’s typical agency relationship history

To understand this, think about what clients need from agencies at different stages of their evolution. 

For start-up businesses, money is tight. When you need an agency, you choose one that offers affordable rates and maximum flexibility. You pick an all-rounder that is “good enough” to do the jobs you most need doing.

However, as you grow, your quality expectations also grow. What was “good enough” before isn’t good enough now.

White round badge with a read heart symbol against a dark grey background

You also worry about relying on one agency. About having all your marketing eggs in one agency basket. So you start to play the field a little.

You hire a specialist agency to do a specialist job as you think they’ll do it better than the generalist. Then you hire another. And another. Your beginner all-rounder agency might have been doing all your market research, your media and your e-Commerce. But over time, you move those jobs to specialist agencies. You develop a roster of agencies and spread the work out. 

This works fine. For a while. But you eventually realise that your marketing activities don’t feel as joined up as they used to. They also take longer. When your agencies work together on a project, they seem to waste lots of time arguing over who does what. Say it’s driving traffic to your e-Commerce site. Is that your digital agency’s job? Your media agency’s job? Your e-Commerce agency’s job? 

Here’s where the dilemma comes in.

The dilemma - generalist or specialist agency?

The admin of managing all these different agencies leaves you feeling fed up.

Plus you’ve got your Finance team nagging you about all those agency fees.

Surely there’s some cost savings there, they say. How many account managers do you need? Why so many strategists and planners? Are we getting good value from our agencies, they ask.

Hmmmm.

Woman wearing smart business suit in front of a laptop looking bored

So you start to think, maybe it would be better to go back to the generalist agency model. Have them do all the organising work and take your pain away. Save those extra fees and keep the finance team off your back. After all, what difference will it make if you lose a specialist agency or two?

What do you do?

What do you most need from your agencies?

The key here is to work out what you most need from your agencies. There are pros and cons to using a generalist or specialist agency. Let’s go through these to help you make your decision.

Generalist agencies

Generalist (full-service) agencies offer a broad range of marketing services. They’re a one-stop shop for your activity needs.

They typically manage ongoing work across multiple projects. These are usually bigger, more complex projects and tasks. 

They’ll often lead with one broad type of service e.g. advertising. But they then support that with related skills e.g. graphic design or digital marketing.

Generalist agency - Pros

With a generalist agency, you have one main point of contact to access many different skills. No need to manage different relationships with different agencies. One agency organises the work for you. That makes your life simpler and frees up your time.

You also spend less on account management fees. Your lead agency organises everything. You pay them, and they handle all the admin, budgets and any extra services you need. 

As one agency handles it all, the work should feel more integrated. Plus, they’re accountable for delivery and business results. If something goes wrong, it’s all on them.

Generalist agency - Cons

However, this approach means you’re very reliant on that agency. That’s a risk. There’s no guarantee they’ll be good at all the jobs you need to be done.

Plus, you often have to sign an exclusivity agreement. You promise not to use other agencies while you work with them. So you give up some control over who does the work for you. If something goes wrong, or you fall out, you risk being stuck with them until the agreement runs out.

Generalist agencies can also be slower with areas like approvals. There are more people involved. More opinions to deal with. This slows down decision-making. The slower you go, the more it usually costs

Specialist agencies

A specialist agency focuses on a specific marketing activity. They’ll have deep expertise, experience and contacts in that area.

That should mean that the quality of their delivery on that activity should be higher than you’d get versus a generalist agency. 

It’s like the difference between visiting your GP and meeting a consultant when you have a specific health issue. You rely more on the specialist’s advice when the need is more specific.

Doctor in white coat holding a stethoscope with arms crossed

Specialist agency - Pros

A specialist agency is normally smaller with its focus on a specific area. This means their delivery of the work is often simpler to manage compared to generalist agencies. There are fewer complications which makes the work run more smoothly

You typically use a specialist agency for smaller projects. One-off projects, or work you do irregularly. Projects with specific time frames. For example, you might use a specialist agency for logo design or packaging development. Areas you don’t update very often.

The specialist agency’s smallness has other benefits too. For example, you often get better service levels. Your business matters more to them as your spend will be a larger percentage of their business compared to generalist agencies. They care more about keeping you happy.

Smaller usually also means faster. The fewer people involved, the quicker the work gets done. It makes things simpler. Also, because the work isn’t ongoing, there’s no locked-in contract. You can switch agencies if something goes wrong. 

Specialist agency - Cons

However, it starts to get harder when you work with many specialist agencies. It takes more effort to manage them all. Each agency needs separate budgets and resource plans. You spend more on fees too. 

Plus, the more agencies you have the more time everything takes, and the harder it is to coordinate all the work. More update meetings. More reporting and dashboard sessions. Specialist agencies will have a narrower view of your business than generalists do. They may not always work well together. The work can often start to feel less integrated.

Hybrid model

So you might be starting to think, which is better? Generalist or specialist agency?

Well, the good news is there’s a third option. There’s nothing to stop you using both types of agency. It depends on where you’re at in terms of your agency relationships and business needs, but this hybrid model is where many clients eventually end up.

With this model, you appoint a lead (usually generalist) agency to organise and run your overall marketing activities.

Five people's hands side by side on a wooden table

They directly manage your ongoing work and major projects. Your advertising and promotions, for example. So you get all the benefits of the work being integrated and co-ordinated.

But you agree with them that there are specific areas and projects where a specialist agency will do a better job. In those cases, the lead agency will manage the work of the specialist agency for you, so you avoid the duplication of effort and fees, while still getting high-quality, integrated work. 

There are a few exceptions where you might go directly to the specialist agency. For example, with very specialised work like running a behavioural science project. Or for smaller, ad hoc projects where you need work done fast and don’t want too many people involved. For example, to update your website icons or to do quick photo edits. For those sorts of jobs, working directly with specialists will be faster and cheaper.

Making the hybrid model work

Having a lead agency should reduce inter-agency friction. But it doesn’t always work out that way. You may find other agencies resent the lead agency’s power. They may not put in the same effort as they would working directly with you. That’s not good.

So you should set clear guidelines for all the agencies in the hybrid model. Set up regular interagency get-togethers. Make sure you ask for consecutive feedback on how the process can be improved.

You’ll know it’s working well when the quality of the work is good, and all the agencies are happy with how it’s working. In an ideal world, you build long-lasting relationships with your agencies. This drives consistently high-quality brand strategy and activation for you. That helps you keep your customers satisfied and makes you a satisfied customer for your agencies. 

Conclusion - Generalist vs specialist agency

As your business grows, you often find yourself with a dilemma in terms of your marketing agencies.

You like the idea of a generalist agency handling all your work as it’s easier to deal with one point of contact and you spend less on agency fees. But you also like the higher quality work (on specific expertise areas) you get from using a specialist agency.

You generally end up trying both approaches and learn what works.

Wide angle short of a creative agency office space with people at open plan desks and a sofa / TV relaxed meeting area

Ideally, you want the best of both approaches. This usually leads you to a hybrid agency model. You appoint a lead agency as your first point of contact. They coordinate and integrate all the work, including working with other agencies. But you leave yourself the flexibility to call on a specialist agency when needed, to add extra expertise, speed and flexibility. 

Check out our marketing agencies guide and our types of agency article for more on this. Or contact us if you’d like an independent view on the relative merits of choosing between a generalist or specialist agency.

Photo credits

Open plan office : Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Game pieces (edited) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Heart Button : Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Bored in front of computer : Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

Three people pointing at laptop : Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Doctor with red stethoscope : Photo by Online Marketing on Unsplash

Hands : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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