Specialist agencies are dead - and that’s a good thing for creatives

David Prior's picture
by David Prior

Martha Moore, account manager at Manifest, challenges the notion that marketers need to put themselves in one creative box to succeed in a noisy market.

If you have a job that sits somewhere within the broad spectrum of marcomms, you’ve probably noticed an increased amount of chatter in your timelines and on Zoom calls about digital PR.

It’s a tale as old as time in an industry that evolves constantly: a slightly new way of doing something is discovered. Everyone rushes to ‘thinkpiece’ it. Some people cooler than you set up a startup specialising in the new thing. People with headshots against exposed brick walls (looking at you, Manifest website) dissect what the new thing could mean for the sector.

People attracted to creative jobs are naturally curious of mind and (mostly) love talking, so as a cycle, it’s to be expected. But the digital PR discourse has been particularly interesting for us at Manifest because of the way we like to do things.

You may have heard us talk about our unique approach to integration. Full disclosure, we do talk about it a lot - but that’s because we’re a collective of people obsessed with the betterment of our industry, for the betterment of the creatives that populate it.

Integration, typically, delivers separate services hand-in-hand, with one focal channel driving the idea or creative behind it. In these scenarios, one channel shines with a bespoke idea that perfectly fits its purpose. But how does that concept then translate across all other channels? Often, it ends up feeling like a forced fit - and what does that mean for the ‘360’ brand experience for consumers?

At worst, that experience feels disjointed - and at best, you’re left with a bunch of teams fighting to make a piece of creative work for their specialist areas.

Unification - which is what we call our model - fronts all creative with a strategy and platform, ideating cross-channel from the off so that one central idea can work seamlessly across paid, earned, social and owned.

Creativity and problem solving - providing solutions to real human issues through creative campaigns - should be channel-agnostic, and not limited by a particular discipline. Approaching campaigns in this way won’t just make for an enhanced execution, it encourages a strategic slant at every touchpoint.

This, of course, isn’t to say that other agencies aren’t strategic in their thinking - any creative worth their salt understands the importance of setting delivery within a much wider context. But giving strategy the gravitas it deserves, and then rolling that strategy out in a fully unified way, can help advance the incredible talent across every single sub-sector in our industry.

Creativity and problem solving should be channel-agnostic, not limited by a particular discipline

Consider it in these terms: almost every comms pro you speak to will bemoan the fact that clients are laser-focused on KPIs and results, with little appreciation for the work that goes on behind the scenes or the ‘bigger picture’. Accountability and a clear picture of success are of course crucial, but getting brands to understand the value of the creative process is an ongoing battle - and often, so is getting them to think beyond just one channel or one set of results.

Many specialist disciplines are almost entirely executional, which leans into the notion that clients pay us for our output and the rest is a ‘nice to have’. That’s not to say we shouldn’t measure through output - we should. But what are we really measuring here? Results are important, but being measured against the right results is even more so. Volume of links doesn’t necessarily drive behaviour change, and that’s the real goal.

Allowing more space for strategy, counsel and behavioural insight can protect creativity - and, perhaps most importantly, can take clients on a journey, helping them to shake the mindset that all that counts is the number of cuttings in their coverage log each month.

At Manifest, we’re also committed to the idea that creatives should be able to grow within their roles and experience the depth and breadth of the industry. In any overtly specialist role - especially one that’s executional - are you putting a glass ceiling on what you can achieve if your agency offers that service and that service alone? This goes for many different disciplines, but in the case of digital PR, this is where some of the industry’s most exciting talent is sitting at the moment. Pretty much any digital PR practitioner would have the creative brains and industry know-how to knock a brand comms brief out of the park - but employers and clients could be forgiven for (incorrectly) thinking their expertise is limited to link-building.

This is by no means to bash specialist comms experts or the work they do - it speaks to a wider and ongoing conversation in the industry, an industry that always strives to compartmentalise and categorise creative output in the name of innovation.

Separating out teams and honing in on specialisms feels progressive - it means that clients can get exactly what they need out of an agency at exactly the moment they need it, right? It also means, though, that if a specialist agency comes up with a cracking concept that can be activated beyond just the channels they operate within, they have to seek out a partner agency to take it off their hands and deliver it.

Cross-agency unification is possible, if an agency has a close network of trusted providers who share the same values and principles as them. Multiple agencies invested in cultivating behaviour change to drive tangible commercial value for the client can achieve brilliant things.

But this unity of thought and shared perspective is absolutely vital, as are clear roles and responsibilities from the off - otherwise, you can end up working in a disconnected way and not for the good of the creative.

Quality results spring from measuring true change aligned to commercially viable business objectives - not links built, column inches gained, or followers earned.

One truly unified agency, with teams working in partnership on multi-channel creatives, allows for people to be exposed to every stage of the creative process - which leads to career development in ways you may never have expected. It also ensures that all creative output is rooted in strategy, cognisance and a true understanding of the brand. Most importantly, though? It honours a creative process and way of thinking that is so often overlooked in favour of massive KPIs, vanity metrics, and instant results.

And there you have it... another industry thinkpiece from someone with a moody headshot against an exposed brick wall.

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