Agency rosters exist to help marketing departments manage creativity.
In art, we prize creativity as unfettered inspiration – the artist channels their imaginative energies to produce original, impactful work. In marketing, creativity works differently. It’s in service to a goal that ultimately isn’t, strictly speaking, creative at all. This goal is to promote something to help sell it. In marketing, there’s a need to manage creativity, contain it, channel it, and draw on it selectively. Managing creativity isn’t easy. It presents a conundrum. Constraints can hamper creativity, but marketers need systems to help them work with multiple, often quite diverse, creative partners.
In theory, the agency roster should give in-house marketing departments the support they need to manage the creative agencies with whom they choose to work. But in practice, roster systems can end up limiting choice and therefore potentially stifling creativity. Working in an independent marketing agency based in Chester, I can see things from several perspectives. In my marketing career to date, I’ve gained plenty of experience in different situations, both agency-side and client-side.
Client-side: The New Kid in the Playground
When you’re new to an in-house marketing department, the established agencies you use can seem like the big kids in the playground who’ve already marked out their territory. They’ll have their own ways of working.
In my early days in a fresh marketing role, I’d been impressed with the output of the agency we were using, so it came as a shock when they returned my first brief and told me it didn’t work for them. I had to swallow my pride and discover what they needed from me to work effectively. You’ve got your culture, the agency has theirs. Somehow, the two must meet in the middle. It’s an educational process.
At that time, there wasn’t a fixed agency roster but instead an accepted list we could choose from. It worked because each of the agencies on the list contributed something different.
However, following a merger, as junior partners we were expected to use a roster, which included a larger agency. It became more difficult to use other agencies due to economies of scale. The quality of work didn’t suffer, and there were ways to work around the roster for smaller jobs, but it didn’t really do what it was supposed to. We were limiting our creative options.
Agency-side: Struggling to Get a Foot in the Door
Working in agencies, I’ve seen the same issue from a different perspective. Larger clients had rosters, typically with retainers, tender processes and a procurement team’s involvement. This was especially true when these larger clients were commissioning new projects.
Bigger agencies were better equipped to work this way. This meant smaller agencies struggled to get a foot in the door. There wasn’t a formal barrier to prevent smaller agencies from bidding for work, but structurally, they found themselves shut out.
Finding a Way In
Of course, smaller agencies tend to be resilient, some as tenacious as terriers in their approach to winning work. A solid tactic is to provide specific skills that agency rosters don’t cater for, such as specialist market research.
Procurement can’t always keep up with the rapid advancement of new marketing skills and techniques. In the early 2000s, SEO was one area where smaller, specialist agencies could compete against the big hitters on agency rosters.
3 Agency Roster Scenarios
In my experience, there are 3 ways of approaching rosters:
- Strict enforcement – with little room for manoeuvre outside its rules
- Looser application – with more leeway for specialists and exploring beyond the roster
- Complete freedom of choice – no roster at all.
A strict roster is straightforward to manage if you put processes in place, but it may limit your creative options. A loosely applied roster offers flexibility, but at the same time, rules you can bend become weak and ineffective, so you don’t gain from the efficiency of having a system. No roster offers freedom, but it’s more challenging to manage multiple agencies without one. Is this the price of greater creative freedom?
What Do You Think?
These observations are based on my personal experience working with and inside agencies. Are there other options when it comes to rosters and managing creativity? What do you think?
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