Proponents of the specialist approach dismiss full-service agencies as too broad: jack-of-all-trades, masters-of-none, whilst supporters of the integrated approach criticise specialist agencies as too myopic and limited: when your only tool is a hammer, you’ll treat every problem as a nail.
Neither criticism is entirely fair. Both specialist and integrated agency models have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Which you should go for, however, is not just a matter of personal preference: there are some very clear distinctions between the two models which you need to understand when going out to tender for a marketing agency.
In the following article, I’ll explain what constitutes both a full-service and specialist agency, and examine the pros and cons of the different options to help you decide which style of agency is the best fit for you and your business’s needs.
Full disclosure here: I work for a full-service agency, so I am biased. However, it is worth mentioning that prior to joining Distinction I worked for one of Google’s UK/I Ads agency teams as an Account Strategist, supporting a lot of agencies -- specialist and integrated -- so I have experience with both sides of the coin.
Full-service marketing agencies
The full-service, or integrated, model, is much as it sounds: agencies offering a full range of marketing services to their clients. Exactly what these are differ from agency to agency, but at Distinction for example, we help our clients with anything from website design and development, to marketing strategy, PPC, SEO, marketing automation, email, and social.
The size of full-service agencies can vary dramatically. At one end of the scale you have small agencies providing general marketing services to new and small businesses. Next there are the midsize, agile agencies providing strategic and technical support to medium and large companies. Lastly there are the massive agencies with multiple internal teams, capable of delivering high-budget, high-exposure campaigns running across all kinds of different on- and off-line media platforms.
You should easily be able to get a feel for which size of agency is appropriate for your company, but is the full-service model right for you?
The case for the full-service approach
Coherent overall strategy
Typically, a full-service agency will be working on multiple different areas of your marketing simultaneously: for example, designing your site whilst also working on your SEO.
This gives them a unique advantage over a specialist agency, who will only be working with one or maybe two areas of your marketing and therefore have a much more limited perspective.
An integrated agency can see the bigger picture, and use this to deliver a coherent overall marketing strategy: critical to the success of any campaign and indeed any business.
One of the greatest strength of a full-service agency (and related to the above) is the breadth of knowledge they bring to a campaign. A good integrated team will have extensive skills and experience across a range of fields. Here at Distinction, for example, I know that if I run into a technical issue with any of my clients, I have an office full of expert developers I can turn to for help.
This expertise can bring wider benefits that you simply couldn’t get from a single specialist agency, and means that an integrated agency can therefore provide a more comprehensive service -- even within a single specialist field.
To take Google Ads marketing as just one example: a successful Google Ads campaign needs at least some input from other departments for a rage of supporting work, such as:
- Adding advanced tracking to help monitor and optimise campaign performance
- Optimising site structure and page content to meet campaign requirements
- Improving site performance to boost keyword quality scores
- Setting up landing page variations for A/B testing
- Implementing technical elements such as merchant feeds for Google Shopping campaigns
- Creating image assets for ad campaigns
- Designing templates for tailored landing pages
- Producing video content for video campaigns
An integrated agency can likely fulfil most or all of these tasks themselves, cutting down on the work you need to do and/or the number of third party agencies you need to hire.
Therefore, even if you’re not paying for the full range of services an agency offers, you can still benefit from their expertise across departments. This, in turn, means your campaigns may actually work out more well-rounded and more successful as a result.
Ease of use
It may seem obvious, but one obvious advantage of a full-service agency is that you will only have to deal with one agency. A single agency that can meet all your marketing needs is far easier to deal with than multiple separate specialist agencies.
Every additional third party that is brought to the table means more work for you as the end client, as you have to act as the organiser and middleman for all the relevant stakeholders. Good communication is essential to any business, and to any marketing campaign. The more players there are, the harder it is to communicate, so the simpler you can make it, the better.
Full-service agencies take this workload from you as they are able to communicate between the different departments internally, simplifying the process considerably.
It is also much easier to maintain consistent brand messaging across all your different marketing channels when using a full-service agency rather than multiple specialists. For every additional agency you use, there is greater potential for miscommunication and confusion.
Using a single full-service agency minimises this risk.
Trust is a very important part of an agency-client relationship. You want to be sure you are getting the best possible service and the best possible value for money.
Now, I absolutely do not think that an integrated agency is more likely to act with honesty and integrity than a specialist agency, or vice versa. Having said that, there a couple of areas where I think an integrated agency has a natural advantage: specifically, platform offerings and reporting.
Firstly, they are less likely to be platform biased. Every agency, be they integrated or specialist, has their own drum to bang, and are likely to push certain recommendations over others. I would argue that the tendency for this is greater with specialist agencies: an agency specialising in social media advertising, for example, is going to push social platforms over all other forms of advertising, whilst a paid search agency is clearly going to argue that Google and Bing are the best platforms for you.
I know this from my own time working with Google: we only saw one part of the picture, and so our message could be overly simplistic at times -- if the campaign works, spend more money on it -- sometimes at the expense of other platforms which could have offered a better solution for the end client’s needs.
An integrated agency has less of an incentive to do this, and is therefore more likely to offer an objective viewpoint on which platform is right for you and your objectives.
Then there is reporting. With all agencies there is an inherent tendency to big up reports to paint the agency in the best possible light. Again, though, the incentive for this is greater for specialist marketing agencies, who naturally need to demonstrate good ROI for their particular services, and so have a motivation to over-report an individual platform. Integrated agencies using multiple platforms are more likely to take a holistic approach and consider all your channels together when reporting.
Finally, if anything does go wrong with a campaign, using a single full-service agency has one additional benefit. If you’ve used multiple third party agencies, there’s the opportunity for them to play the blame game and look to shift responsibility to the other agencies. With an integrated agency in charge of the whole campaign, the buck stops at their door, so they have no option but to acknowledge their mistakes and work to find solutions and new approaches.
This is a slightly contentious one. Full-service agencies can be very expensive compared to specialists, or they can be much cheaper: it’s entirely dependent on what services you require, and therefore how many individual agencies you’d need to hire. If it’s just one individual marketing service you need then a specialist agency will likely work out more cost effective (albeit at the expense of the benefit of wider expertise I mentioned earlier). However, for anything more than this, using a single agency will almost certainly cut down on your overall fees.
Specialist marketing agencies
Unlike integrated marketing agencies, specialist agencies provide a single or a select few services. Their business models can vary significantly: some opt for a high volume of lower value accounts with smaller businesses, whilst others work with a much smaller number of significantly higher spending campaigns with much larger companies. Ultimately, however, they all take broadly the same approach of focusing on an individual or particular group of advertising channels.
The case for the specialist approach
A good specialist agency should be experts in their field. Their narrower focus means they can hire and train specialist staff and take the time to develop their expertise in a single area, a luxury that full-service agencies simply don’t have.
They are also more likely to be up-to-date with the latest changes and advancements in their field, an essential quality in digital marketing, an industry subject to rapid and frequent changes.
All agencies, even full-service, should be ‘specialists’ at what they do, but where with a more generalist agency there will always be stronger and weaker areas, a specialist agency shouldn’t have this problem. As always, pick which is right for your marketing objectives.
Some specialist agencies offer services that most integrated agencies simply cannot bring to the table. Classic examples include print and video, two advertising channels that are so specialised that few except the biggest of full-service marketing agencies are prepared to invest in; whilst a more recent example would be programmatic advertising, a high-budget and complex advertising platform that again is typically offered only by specialist agencies or large integrated agencies.
While a specialist agency is incentivised to promote the benefits of its particular channel, you won’t get any of the cross-selling and up-selling that you’re likely to get from a full-service agency, who will naturally want to promote their range of services. If you have a good relationship with your agency this shouldn’t be much of a problem, but it’s worth bearing in mind when looking for new agencies.
A common, and not unqualified, complaint often levelled against full-service agencies is that marketing campaigns and projects can end up being pushed around between departments, with responsibility being passed on to other (sometimes more junior) team members.
Arguably, specialist agencies, with their smaller teams, are less prone to this, although with lengthy projects and the natural employee churn rate of agencies, this will always be a problem whoever you go with. A good agency, whether integrated or specialist, should take steps to mitigate the impact of any such changes on your campaigns.
Specialist agencies are often (though not without exception) relatively small companies. This gives them a flexibility that the largest of full-service agencies don’t have, and they can generally respond faster to your requests (although of course, the same can be said of smaller to mid-sized integrated agencies.)
Again, this is contentious. Hiring multiple specialist agencies can quickly become very expensive, and some specialist agencies (particularly video and programmatic) can command eye-watering fees.
If, however, you only need a small range of services, then a specialist agency can be very cost-effective. You are only paying for what you need, and particularly in the case of smaller agencies, you may pay less in the way of both initial and ongoing fees.
There is also a tendency among some integrated agencies to hire external specialists to plug the gaps in their own knowledge. Whilst on the one hand this means you get the benefit of multiple specialists with a single point of contact, the middleman fees mean you inevitably end up paying more. Going to the specialists directly cuts this out and gives better value for money.
Which is best?
Large companies with good sized, dedicated internal marketing teams will likely benefit more from specialists. If you already have a marketing team skilled across a range of disciplines, and are looking to plug a particular gap in your abilities (video or print, for example) then hiring a single specialist agency for your campaign is a good solution. You can also hire multiple specialists, but only do this if you have a highly capable project management team capable of liaising with all the necessary stakeholders who can ensure coherent campaign messages and overall goal delivery.
For most companies, however, a full-service marketing agency is the way to go. The ease and simplicity they provide, combined with the breadth of their expertise and their ability to see and act on the bigger picture gives them a clear advantage over specialist agencies. In the increasingly connected world of digital marketing, most companies simply cannot afford to silo their marketing efforts: it reduces efficiency, increases costs, and decreases chances of campaign success.
As always, carefully consider your business objectives and work out which agency model will work best for you.
At Distinction, we offer a range of marketing services, from design & development, through to PPC, SEO, automation and more. If you’re interested in working with us or would like to know more, get in touch today or download our latest guide to working on your Google Ads strategy.