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The specialist versus integrated agency debate

Think a jack of all trades is a master of none? Not so fast.

The specialist versus integrated agency debate
[DC Studio/Adobe Stock]

When I was a kid, I was a DC Comics guy. And that meant I loved Superman. He was the original superhero who had it all: super strength, X-ray and heat vision, invulnerability, super hearing, “freeze” breath. He was also faster than a speeding bullet. That’s pretty fast.

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Then DC created the Flash, “the fastest man alive.” And ever since, comics aficionados have debated the eternal question, “Who’s faster?” Superman and Flash finally had a race to settle the issue in 1967, but it ended in a tie. The pair have had eight more races in the comics over the years. Eventually, Flash began winning them.

DC apparently decided that was better for its portfolio of superhero brands. After all, what good is the Flash if there’s another superhero who runs faster—and does everything else better, too?

And so it is with PR and marketing agencies. Our tendency is to expect the specialist firm to be better than the generalist.

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THE SPECIALIST VERSUS GENERALIST DEBATE

Having a specialty in marketing is a natural differentiator. That’s why agencies that offer multiple services must overcome this belief by creating synergies that make integration the better choice.

And a well-run integrated agency does have some inherent advantages over specialist firms.

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For example, if I’m a CMO and I hire separate agencies for PR, social media, website design, brand strategy, SEO, and content marketing (to cite a rather extreme example), that’s six different invoices to pay every month. It’s also six different times I have to repeat myself whenever the company’s strategy changes, a big announcement is going out, or I just want to update everyone on anything.

I also have to deal with the fact that everything in digital marketing is inextricably linked today. Is it even possible to separate content from SEO, or social media from media relations? Not effectively.

And good luck having a consistent brand voice with so many mouthpieces. It just doesn’t work.

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A PARTNER FOR ACHIEVING BIG GOALS

Having a single, strong agency partner can also help a brand stay on track with its program.

Often, a client comes to us with big goals. The CMO has been given a directive from above to do any number of things—create awareness, increase site traffic, improve the sales funnel. We kick off a program for them and for the first few months, that’s what we work toward.

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But then other things start to compete for the CMO’s attention. Someone in sales asks for a new piece of collateral. Or the sales deck needs to be redesigned. Or they need a new page added to the website. And slowly that singular focus on strategic goals gets blurred. The urgent overwhelms the important.

It’s understandable. As a marketer, your table gets crowded. Your eye wanders. Or a directive from one leader starts to compete with a directive from another.

When that happens with my agency’s clients, we consider it our job to direct focus back to those original strategic goals. That only works, though, when you have one strong agency partner who, like you, can see the big picture and step in to help.

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BACKING UP THE PROMISE OF INTEGRATION

All of this makes a pretty good case for integration. Of course, a key consideration for brands, as well as for the agencies that serve them, is how best to implement an integrated strategy. Silos can make working across disciplines toward shared goals difficult. This is true for both agencies and corporate marketing departments.

If you’re a brand seeking an agency’s help, make sure the agency is organized to make cross-functional cooperation seamless. Every team member working for your brand—across PR, content, social media, design, and strategy—should speak with a single voice for you.

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If you are an agency that would like to break down silos to offer the benefits of integration to clients, the first step is to begin organizing around solutions rather than capabilities. For some agencies, that may require significant changes to your org chart—for others, simply a change to your mindset.

A JACK OF ALL TRADES CAN BE A MASTER AS WELL

“A jack of all trades,” the saying goes, “is a master of none.”

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It’s said that this figure of speech was first used by Robert Greene, a 16th-century English dramatist, in a 1592 pamphlet dismissing a new playwright on the scene for being not only a writer, but also an actor.

That upstart playwright’s name? William Shakespeare.

A generalist isn’t necessarily inferior to a specialist in any given specialty. Factor in the synergies of integration and a generalist agency can make a compelling case for your business.

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And by the way, I still think Superman is faster than the Flash—no matter what DC says.


Scott Baradell is CEO of Idea Grove, a unified PR and marketing agency, and editor of the online publication Trust Signals.

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