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Do You Need an Internal or External Agency?

Think you’ve got the answer? Hold on. Not so fast. That’s not the right question.

In today’s accelerated, fragmented and increasingly complex communications world, brand success demands more breadth and depth of skills than ever before. And while we’re hearing more stories about companies expanding their internal resources (yes, even Apple is doing it), the reality is very few single teams, whether internal or external, can claim to be whizzes at everything.

To put your brand in a winning position, collaboration is a must. Sorry, we’re not going to reveal the secret formula here — because it doesn’t exist. The perfect choice really depends on a variety of factors. So, the right question to ask yourself is: “Which is the best collaborative model for my brand?” That we can answer.

Three Ways To Consider External

A great place to start your search for your perfect marketing structure is Marty Neumeier’s book “The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design.” Here he outlines three basic collaborative models.

The One Stop Shop: In this first model, the marketing and advertising agency you select to work with has all the necessary resources to develop and steward your brand in-house. It’s easy to manage — a single vendor offers the promise of consistency — but on the flip side, it does not give you the freedom to select a specific team or teams to work on your brand. Worse yet, it takes brand “ownership” away from you and places it in the hands of the agency (insert sinister evil-villain laugh here). Bottom line: despite bold claims by “full-service marketing firms,” we don’t believe any agency can meet all your needs. So if you want strong brands, strategically built and managed, stay away from this model. In our view, it’s a species on the fast track to extinction.

The Integrated Marketing Team: In this model, the brand — you — researches a variety of specialized partners to build an integrated marketing team, which you manage internally. The advantages: you select your key players and maintain full ownership of the brand. Drawbacks: it’s highly complex to build and manage. Most importantly, this model requires open collaboration between all the partners. Well, good luck on that one. Despite best efforts and promises, most of these attempts end-up in failure. And here’s why: agencies always compete against each other. Less so if you select agencies without any overlap in capabilities or offerings. But even then, some agencies will see opportunities to evolve toward what the “other guys” are offering. It’s Darwinian. Anyone promising you otherwise isn’t being honest (with you or themselves). Bottom line: unless you have highly sophisticated brand management and marketing teams ready and able to orchestrate the myriad of partners needed to support you, stay away from this model.

The Brand Agency: Just like it sounds, in this scenario you will hire a branding agency. It becomes their job to focus on the core aspects of brand creation and management and hire best-of-breed firms to help build the brand. The advantage: simplicity — you’ll have one partner, whom you select, to guarantee brand consistency. The branding agency becomes the gatekeeper of brand alignment. Disadvantages? The brand ownership is with your branding partner. There are two ways to mitigate that risk: First, select a real branding agency, with which you will create a true, long-term partnership (avoid the agency revolving door practice). Second, have them help you via an effective brand management organization and process. Such as appointing a Chief of Branding or Chief Brand Officer. That will minimize dependence on the agency, improve better communication through better knowledge, and ultimately ensure better results from your enhanced implementation of key internal aspects.

Of course there are hundreds of other partnership models out there. And as we mentioned, there are brand-specific factors you’ll need to consider before making your decision. Those include strength of the internal marketing and branding teams, desired level of control over the brand, economics and ultimately your expected results.

Bringing It All In

You may think, based on the three models we’ve detailed so far, that we outright reject an exclusively internal model. Bingo!

Combine that with the fact that we clearly lean toward the third of Neumeir’s models (brand agency) and you’re probably thinking we’re being a little (ok a lot) self-serving here. You’re correct again… in a way.

The reality today is that branding agencies exist and thrive globally. In fact, their clients happen to be among the most valuable brands in the world. There are two distinct truths in this reality: brands get their leading position with the support of the right branding agency, and being a leading brand gives them the means to hire the right branding agency.

Our esteemed colleagues, including Omnicom’s Interbrand and Siegel + Gale, McCann-Erickson’s FutureBrand, WPP’s Landor and Brand Union and Marsh & McLennan Companies’ Lippincott, are a few examples of agencies that offer advantages for their clients that no single internal brand or ad team could provide. From broad strategic expertise to award-winning creativity to advanced media planning capabilities. It’s their business to stay on top of the branding business, and the time, talent and resources they bring can spot opportunities and dodge mistakes — a luxury an in-house team might not have.

Additional advantages to hiring a brand agency include the following:

Expertise. These days, true brand differentiation really is more science than art. Complex research, strategy and planning tools are essential to ensure spot-on communication. This can only come from in the trenches experience.

Enthusiasm. Creative excitement is one of the key benefits agencies bring to the table. The best creative talent tends to gravitate to agencies, where they get fresh opportunities and variety in their work on a daily basis.

Ability. As the indelicate saying goes, you can’t smell your own stink, and the same can be true of odorous ideas. External agencies are forced to constantly doubt and validate their work, pushing them to raise the bar on a regular basis.

Honesty. No matter how smart and eager your in-house creative team is, the harsh reality is once they’ve started sipping the company Kool-Aid, they’re not interested in rocking the boat. Your employees will quickly figure out what you like, and what you don’t. Agencies on the other hand are independent, and their livelihood does not hinge on one client (if it does they’re doing it wrong). As a result, they’re in a stronger position to push for creative innovation.

The Balancing Act

There’s a good chance you’re leaning toward a model that includes both an internal agency and external partners. This formula can definitely work, as long as you don’t create internal vs. external agency competition. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of your in-house team as well as your outside support and put the best projects in the right hands. If you find yourself second-guessing what your external agency can do for you, find a different branding agency. The goal here is to avoid a dogfight and get the best possible work from each team.

So, which model is best for your brand? You decide. Hopefully these insights will help shed some light on the key aspects to consider and what opportunities will put your marketing in the right hands. May your brands soar above your competitors and reach ultimate “brand supremacy.”

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