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.