Hybrid Agency? We’re Born This Way

The headlines over the past several years have provided a steady stream of reminders. Each one arriving with more fanfare than the last:

“Why IBM just acquired ecx.io, its third digital agency in a week”… “Pivotal acquires user experience design agency Slice of Lime” … “Ernst & Young buys NorthPoint Digital, U.S. based design agency”… “Deloitte buys Swedish creative ad agency Acne” …“McKinsey acquires design firm Lunar for digital transformation”… and one from Advertising Age that’s got us talking, “What it’s really like to work at an agency when it’s bought by a consultancy.”

The formula is quite simple: Successful creative shop bolts on a successful consultancy. Or, successful consultancy bolts on a successful creative shop. Easy-peasy. It works.

Except when it doesn’t.

Born this way

From day one, we’ve operated as a true hybrid: one part agency and one part consultancy. To borrow a line from Lady Gaga, we were “born this way.” We started the agency with a leadership team with backgrounds spanning both the agency and the consulting worlds. We believed then and still do today the combination of those two capabilities addresses the challenges of clients in a more meaningful way.

Every client campaign begins with our unique Grounded in Truth approach, a process rooted in a consultancy mindset. To our agency, Grounded in Truth means we begin our process by ensuring there are no assumptions and that we have deep, contextualized insights as we set strategy. Our approach to Grounded in Truth is no easy task and typically includes market research, audience attitude and behavior examination, business and competitive intel, and third-party influence analysis. Together, this information gives us solid level setting and unique insights we can take to the client’s audiences. At the end of the day, Grounded in Truth isn’t rocket science, but it works for the very important reason that it’s a process we live and die by every day and with every client.

The beauty of Grounded in Truth is that it’s discipline agnostic. The process provides the insights to define relevant strategy that ultimately reveals the path forward, whether that be a sales training recommendation, a brand refresh, a grassroots issues management campaign or even a social media relaunch strategy. We can create an adult-learning curriculum with equal skill and aplomb as a killer brand campaign system.

When you can consider almost everything, you can deliver almost anything.

Making it work

So how do we make it all work? Two words: culture and access.

What the recent bolt-on models fail to account for is that the success doesn’t hinge on the model itself, but rather the culture. Creative shops and consultancies are inherently different animals. Trying to bring them together after they’ve each independently reached maturity is an unnatural act. But when combined at the beginning, being mutually respected and supported throughout the evolution, the marriage lasts. We have never fundamentally thought of the two worlds as separate, but as interdependent ways of thinking that help us deliver results for clients. We see the forest and the trees.

This culture of merged strategy and creative manifests itself in myriad ways, down to how we develop our people. We train our account team members to be marketers, not “just” communications people or traffickers between account and functional teams. We hear over and over from our clients they don’t want order takers. They want consultants and advisers who can help them solve their business challenges. Our account team is trained and empowered to consider the full spectrum of solutions we can deliver to clients.

Access has also been key to our success. With a consultancy approach, our initial client interactions oftentimes begin with the CEO or CFO and eventually involve the CMO and marketing teams. These interactions yield insights and relationships we most likely would not have had if we’d followed a more traditional communications or marketing point of entry. Over the past decade plus, we have routinely leveraged our consulting capabilities to win new integrated business in a differentiated manner or used that function as a foot in the door to a long-term integrated relationship.

As sure as we’ll see another announcement of a consultancy and agency coming together, I’m equally certain our own success would not have been possible without that structure from the start. We like how the future looks.