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Myth of Full Service Agencies

It is common today to visit a creative or digital agency and notice that it espouses itself to be a full service agency. As a matter of fact, agencies offering a vast variety of niche services seem to be calling themselves full service agencies.

From creative agencies, advertising agencies, web development agencies to marketing agencies there is no end to the loose usage of this term. So what is a full service agency? Does it truly exist or is the term ‘full service’ purely another extension.

Quick research on the term ‘full service’ brings up a multitude of results, often demonstrating different business models that would actually work quite well as a full service agency if these agencies combined their talents.

An advertising agency, interactive agency, web development house and a media buying agency, all purporting to be full service agencies, would do well to consolidate their skills under one banner to then call themselves a full service agency; or would they?

What exactly does ‘full service’ incorporate?

A strategy director from a prominent creative agency recently told me that the industry changes very quickly, and that his agency, with offices across Australia, is well placed to call itself a full service agency.

However, he did agree that there are grey areas where they do not have the know-how or internal skill sets to meet all requirements.

He did suggest that good agencies generally build skill sets around their clients needs. He further pointed out that marketing, IT and merchandising all have conflicting agendas and these need to be managed accordingly.

My background is deeply established in the areas of business, supply chain and fulfilment, online retailing, digital and guerrilla marketing and consulting. To me, the concept of agency, regardless of the core offering or background, has been relatively alien until recently.

As an online retailing/eCommerce consultant specialising in supply chain and fulfilment, eCommerce strategy, multi-channel strategy, marketing, operational optimisation, etc, my skill sets have been the domain of the new commerce business world, i.e. bricks-and-mortar retailers, pure play online retailers and multi or omni-channel retailers (therefore the terminology ‘new commerce”).

Beautiful, but is it effective?

In my travels, I see an evolving trend emerging whereby businesses realise an online presence is now the norm in the commercial environment, strongly influenced by globalisation, and the democratisation of consumer goods through the World Wide Web.

Naturally, just as businesses turn to their accountants for business and financial advice, they also turn to their agencies for advice on eCommerce strategies.

Agencies have jumped on the lucrative web development bandwagon, but agencies are not online retailing or eCommerce experts and more often than not produce beautiful websites that win awards, but are slow, cumbersome and have minimal traffic and conversion.

To add to this, there is almost always the need for integration of websites into warehouse management systems, accounting and customer relationship management software: things generally outside the scope and comfort zone of most agencies.

In the new commerce world, the full service agency definition is now being stretched to accommodate the complexities of the era of eCommerce. Online retailing is highly competitive and reliant on a lot more than a good-looking website and technology.

And this is where a lot of agencies skill sets end; pretty much at the point where creative design and technology meet. Often, a beautiful, fully functioning website is presented to the customer, yet little thought has gone into the strategy, fulfilment, marketing and social media plans that need to drive the customer’s business forward.

Many readers of this article will be able, with somewhat of a grimace, to identify the pain they have gone thorough with a creative agency that has offered an incredible eCommerce solution, yet have lived through the experience of being that agency’s guinea pig, as the agency cycles through different developers and digital producers as frequently as one changes underwear.

The agency grapples with complexities it never considered.

Examples: offering platforms and using outsourced developers the agency has no experience with; not properly understanding the change management and staffing issues that arise once an eCommerce-enabled website is up and running; promising easy integration into existing warehouse, inventory and accounting systems; and promising short lead times to name a few.

It is not uncommon to hear of project delivery a year after originally promised at costs that certainly leave the agencies far out of pocket, and a never-ending tirade of finger pointing at developers, web hosting companies, and often the client too, as the reason for the project’s delay or failure.

So, how do agencies handle this evolving complexity which is out of their comfort zone?

They either withdraw from eCommerce, or play it by ear and learn as they go, billing the customer along the way; or they start to outsource the expertise, although they are often not sure who to turn to for advice.

What do you need to know before you visit your agency?

Check the agency’s track record and interview at least four of their existing clients that have integrated eCommerce strategies. If you are using an agency that has little experience with integrated eCommerce, and this will be demonstrated by the number of customers they have on their wall of pride, be advised to avoid these agencies unless you are prepared to be a test case for them.

Ask lots of questions: What platform do they use? Magento is the platform flavour of the month, is open source and, if implemented well, transferable; meaning you can have another developer take over the maintenance of the site if you are unhappy with your agency.

Magento is a beast though and requires resources to maintain, so keep asking. Some agencies will offer an “in house” platform or build for you from the ground up. This is great, but remember you are locked into a relationship that’s not easily transferrable. If you are unhappy, you may have to redevelop the website with another agency at your cost if you move.

Also make sure there is a bailout clause in any contract you sign. Often agencies not only want to build the site, but they want to lock you into maintenance plans, marketing plans, social media plans for 12-36 months.

Do you have the systems in place that are ready to integrate into your website? Don’t build the site as a standalone if you can avoid it; rather work toward integrating your existing data systems so that existing data can be pulled into your website automatically without duplicate handling of data.

Who is going to manage the relationship with the host (the company that actually keeps your website on a server), and who has the control? Are you being billed directly or is the agency in control of the billing?

Remember, you want to be in control of as much as you can. This means having a direct relationship with your host, having the log-ins and passwords for everything, including website backend, third party mail vendors, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, log-ins, etc.

In conclusion, ‘full service agency’ doesn’t always mean full service, so do your homework beforehand. Check with businesses that are already successful in eCommerce, multi-channel, omni-channel, etc, and find out what resources did the agencies, web developers, etc use to get to where they are. Use this as a starting point and keep asking questions.

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