How agencies are reinventing the creative team in the social era

Over the years, the integration versus unbundling debate has raged on within the advertising industry. One side would argue it’s best to have all necessary expertise under one roof. Others would argue it’s best to create or partner with entities that offer specialized focus. The integration camp would claim their approach provides for better collaboration. The unbundling camp would argue their approach provides better expertise and greater efficiencies. They are both right. And they are both wrong.

Both specialization and integration have their benefits. But what’s most important is working together in the best possible way to garner the best possible results for clients. If that’s integration, great. If that’s unbundling, great. We’re not here to debate the finer points of either camp. We’re here to offer up some real-world insight into how real-world agencies are tackling real-world problems.

How are agencies reconfiguring their teams to better function in the digital and social marketing era? How have agencies benefited from working not just with traditional creatives but how have they cast a wider net to include developers, freelance specialists and other partners? How do they then guard against “too many chefs in the kitchen”?

We queried several agencies and asked them what they are doing and what they have changed to improve how they work in an increasingly interconnected but complex industry. Some have retooled their org charts. Other have formed close partnerships. And still others have formed teams of people with seemingly unrelated skill sets.

One agency, Santa Monica-based DW+H, which recently hired crowdsourcing agency Victor & Spoils to rebrand and rename it, has created what it calls a “skunkworks operation” to handle unsolicited work for clients.

DW+H Partner Lucas Donat tells us, “The teams are small, from 2 to 5 people, and what job titles they comprise are flexible; anything from an agency producer, copywriter, art director, or creative director to a social media strategist, intern, talent coordinator, or a receptionist. Really. But instead of being led by someone in a typical copywriter/art director role, skunkworks are directed by a ‘creative producer.'”

In terms of the roles and responsibilities of the creative producer, Donat adds, “It’s a catch-all term, but the point is, he or she is out in front on everything, from creative brief to seeding strategies to online launch, and has to be versed in topics that are far outside the typical old definition of ‘creative’ from planning to camera operations to casting to digital editing apps to Twitter. The payback is the below-the-radar opportunities these skunkworks teams can seize on, opportunities that would likely fall between the cracks of a more structured task force.”

DW+H does this not in reaction to a client request but autonomously. If the client likes the work, they pay for it. If they don’t, well, they don’t.

When it comes to formulating partnerships that bolster an agency’s offering, Raleigh-based Baldwin& (not a typo, the agency’s name) Founder and “Lead Guitar” David Baldwin tells us, “Our solution has been to develop a few trusted outside sources who have become our quasi-partners. One in particular is just a few blocks away and we have that company’s owner on retainer for a handful of days every month. Another is an hour-and-a-half car ride. A lot of what we do with them is over the phone.”

To make sure these external partners are properly coordinated and that an, ahem, integrated approach is undertaken, Baldwin continues, “We make a creative technologist, and sometimes a seeding and syndication specialist, too, a part of our concepting team, early, early on in the process, long before we’ve shown anything to the client. We want to make sure we’re seeing the idea from all angles and making it as powerful as possible.”

It’s not that any of this “all inclusive” approach is necessarily new. But, since the advent of digital media and, more recently, social media, it’s become increasingly important to include and involve post-digital skill sets such as computer programmers, app developers, content marketing creators, customer service personnel and social media strategists.

Of the importance of technology’s role in today’s agency, Deep Focus CEO Ian Schafer adds, “Because of social media, technology can play just as big of a role in how fast and far a brand’s message travels as ‘traditional’ creative, or even paid media does. As an agency, if you don’t respect this, your lunch will be eaten by those who do.”

This shift in roles, responsibilities and the importance of previously unnecessary skill sets has dramatically changed how agencies structure themselves.

In terms of how agencies are expanding the definition of the core team, Jared Levy, chief digital officer at Neighbor tells us, “To the traditional CD/AD/CW/planner creative team, Neighbor adds – right from the start, as central participants – a digital creative and a communications strategist. What we want to make sure to avoid is the classic old-school pandemonium, when suddenly, two weeks before deadline, social, digital and earned media specialists are brought in and told to adapt – however they can – an old media idea to the new media universe.”

The worst thing that can happen in the creative development process is for an idea to catch wings and have no place to fly. Though it may seem simple to bring all necessary skill sets seamlessly into the process, it is one of the biggest challenges agencies must confront. But if the right people aren’t involved early on in the ideation process, the net results are destined to fail.

Post by Steve Hall

Steve Hall is a marketing professional, publisher, writer, community manager, photographer and all-around lover of advertising. Steve has held management positions in media and account service at Leo Burnett, Starcom/Mediavest and others, working on such accounts as Reebok, Marriott, and Marshmallow Fluff.

6 Responses to How agencies are reinventing the creative team in the social era

  1. Olivia Kleinhans

    As a project manager, I’ve been dealing with this same conundrum for many years. In past jobs at larger agencies, project management tried scrupulously to implement the “get everyone involved early on” approach. Our biggest challenge in that situation, is that the meetings got very large once you included a PM, an AE or two, a CD, AD, CW, digital producer, technical director, print producer…. A disdain for the large meeting began to form and it seemed to come from the senior level down. Junior folks loved getting the experience and exposure to the different elements, but the Senior folks wanted to chat causally amongst themselves in informal meetings.
    Now I’m at a smaller agency but we still have our own developers etc. People still don’t want the large meetings, but for a different reason. Unlike a large agency, most of our clients are not on a retainer. When you start to add up the hours for all of these people attending many meetings from the beginning of a project, your project budget skyrockets quickly. It is truly an art form finding the balance of when and how to open up the road to collaboration.

    • Darren Tarlow

      @Olivia – you bring up a great point on cost, it’s kind of “the rub” when it comes to this increasingly popular philosophy of involving everyone, especially as the age of the retainer wanes.

      What I’ve seen more and more when visiting with medium sized agencies is the application of that philosophy, but in an informal setting, e.g. posting ideas on a central wall within the agency and inviting input from anyone with an opinion. While this approach doesn’t go as deep as having dedicated teams, it at least provides a baseline of diversified feedback that can be applied to an idea.

  2. Kelly

    Interesting. We struggle with this too. I am curious whjat kind of skillsets are most important in the Creative Producer role. Seems like a tough position to fill.

  3. Olivia Kleinhans

    @Darren- I think the collaboration board is a a great idea when it comes to brainstorming, but as you said it really doesn’t delve very deep. I would imagine each contributor probably doesn’t get enough info about the project from the board to feel like they will be held accountable for applying their expertise to its fullest extent.

    @Kelly-I’m curious about the Creative Producer position as well. I’m sure it is a tough position to fill and I can’t imagine it replacing any other producer positions. PMs certainly need to have top-level knowledge of all types of production capabilities and roles, but having a producer who is an expert in their line of media-print, digital, broadcast etc. has always been an invaluable asset. I can’t tell from the article if the Creative Producer role is meant to be a substitution for your traditional Creative Director type role or in lieu of a Project Manager type role.

  4. TM

    I’m confused by the article’s separation of skill sets into “offline” and “online”. Most copywriters, art directors and creative directors working today are as immersed in digital media (including social) as they are in print and broadcast media. The people who don’t end up having to quickly develop these skills or perish. I’ve never seen a great concept that can’t be adapted across different channels. The Old Spice “smell like a man” campaign is a perfect example of a great idea that was executed across social, broadcast, and print — and went viral in earned media coverage.

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