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What’s wrong with the term: “Full-Service Agency”?


Through my career I have worked at several so-called full-service agencies. And it is an easy and understandable way of saying; “we can do it all”. But as a wise man once said; if you can do everything, then you cannot really do anything.

The following is not a critique of the work of agencies that call themselves full-service agencies. The ones I have worked for are doing great work. But it’s a critique of the concept “full-service”, which I have stopped believing in:

There are three simple reasons why:

1. In-house specialities might not serve the clients best interest

As a consulting business, it’s both your advantage and obligation to look at the client from an outsiders perspective. When most agencies develop new services they either conceptualize a customer case or they hire in an expert to drive a new business area. In either case, they develop new competences by looking at market opportunities – which of course is a natural way to develop a business.

So they might have seen that in the area of Design, Content Marketing, SEO or whatever discipline, which is “buzz” and where there is money to be made. And so they hire a specialist in order to drive that business area. Now, when hiring a specialist – or expert – they need to bring in business to pay his or hers wages. That means, the agency would be tempted to start looking at their own offerings first, before looking at what the client really need. And the agency will start suggesting every client a strategy for Design, Content marketing or SEO.

2. The employment lock of competences

A second problem, related to the above is, that once you have an employment contract with your new expert, the agency gets locked to that specific persons competences. And what if they are actually not the best on the market?

A great example is the unfortunate wave of agency cross-over between advertising-, media-  and public relations agencies, where each part has been spreading their business areas. The advertising agency claiming they can do Public Relations, the PR-agency claiming they can do advertising and the media-agency claiming they can do both.

It’s all communications – right? – We just hire in someone that has the skills on the CV and we are good to go. But the truth is you will never have the same competences as a specialized agency, and therefore you might need to think twice before laying all you eggs in the same basket.

3. Full-service becomes another term for generalist

The term “full-service communications agency” is a very easy term to use, since there is no official definition of what full-service implies. So what disciplines comes to your mind with full-service communications/Public Relations agency?

It can make sense if the agency is a BIG agency; with a 100 people, they probably have all the specialist competences in-house. But in smaller markets like the Nordics, where most of the agencies range between 5 and 25 consultants, it would be a bit of a stretch to call it a full-service agency. The truth is rather, that you, as a client, will have a generalist account manager, that carries out  most of the work.

The future is networked

So the next time you hear the phrase “full-service-agency” then stop for a while and ponder; what services beyond the traditional disciplines do I really need? And if I need services beyond the traditional disciplines – do you actually believe the agency have the best competences in-house?

In opposition to the “full-service” agency, I believe the networked agency approach has a better future. The networked agency makes a deliberate choice of partners they can use for their handpicked expertise. And since there is no demand for bringing in a revenue to the partners, the networked agency does not have a need for suggesting specific areas of communication disciplines, but can stay free to actually give the best advice according to the clients needs.

Further, there are other benefits such as; its easier to replace or add new partners for competence or chemistry reasons. You do not depend your special expertise on a single person hired in – who says you can hire the best? And creativity seems to be more sparkling, when working with people that does not necessarily carry the same corporate culture as yourself.

We believe in being “networked” instead of “full-service”. This does not mean we cannot offer the generalist range of services. We just think it’s a more honest approach admitting we cannot do everything best ourselves.

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