Full-service firm or specialist? The answer may surprise you.

Which is better — a full-service agency or a specialist?

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We think that’s the wrong question. Most clients absolutely need multiple communication methods and channels executed as an integrated effort with an overarching strategy, particularly when it comes to developing and deploying content. Other clients may start with a specialist and eventually grow into needing more. The real question, then, is whether your full-service agency or specialist partner is willing to admit when they need assistance in doing what’s best for you. Then, can that agency or firm be an effective partner when there are multiple teams involved, for the good of the overall effort?

Two Rivers Marketing is considered a full-service agency. But I have a great deal of respect for “specialty firms” — digital and interactive, video, media relations, and so on; firms (or individuals) who have become absolute experts in one communication method or channel, maybe even target market. A team or independent specialist who has drawn a line and said, “This is what we’re going to do better than anyone else, and we’ll build a business on it.” That takes discipline and commitment, which can indeed lead to being better than someone else at a craft or area of expertise, certainly if that “someone else” is trying to grow several different capabilities.

And when we meet specialists who can do a certain thing better than we can — or maybe even something we don’t do at all — we love to partner with them to make what we’re doing for our clients even better. I assume specialists would do the same: If one of their clients needed additional services they don’t provide (of course, because they’ve built a business on a specialty), they’d partner with us to provide a broader portfolio of methods and channel experience that is best for the client.

Good full-service agencies have the big-picture vision. In many cases, they drive an effort that goes far beyond just one or a few communication methods or channels. Especially in today’s “content marketing” world, clients know they need to utilize owned, earned and paid channels to distribute content that entertains, educates and informs to build a relationship with a target audience. That cannot be done effectively utilizing just one method or communication channel. There may also be a question as to which methods and channels are most effective. A full-service partner will vet all of the possibilities and develop an integrated effort that is most effective. And a good, smart full-service agency will know what it’s good at and where it needs help; it’ll know what certain business approaches don’t even make sense. But that agency will also want to manage and direct the effort, and have exceptional specialist partners, if needed, to help ensure the effort is successful.

On the flip side, a good specialist has honed a craft or area of expertise but always has an eye on whether it’s time to expand through partnerships — or whether it’s time to be a valued partner for a full-service agency who needs to expand as well.

The important thing is to find a marketing partner whose ego does not get in the way of doing what’s right for the client.

The marks of good full-service agencies:

  • They have enough capabilities to be effective consultants.
  • They recognize their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • If needed, they aren’t afraid to engage help from specialists and will be open about that. Some agencies are afraid clients will see this as a weakness; it’s actually a strength, and it shows a commitment to do whatever is best for the client.
  • If a full-service agency is a strong and trusted consultant in the equation, it should have nothing to fear in bringing on a partner.

The marks of good specialty firms or specialists:

  • They should be trusted consultants, even if their areas of expertise are more limited.
  • They, too, understand what they’re good at and when they need help.
  • They are open to engaging full-service firms when the client’s needs grow outside of their areas of expertise … They do what’s best for the client. Not a weakness, but a strength.

Full-service firms that say they can do absolutely everything in-house to solve all of a client’s marketing communication needs are not being realistic with themselves or clients. Our agency has very high-level capabilities in many areas. But occasionally there is something a client needs that we may want outside expertise for. Which is why we are always on the lookout for good partners who have honed a particular craft or method, or have more experience with a particular channel or market. Specialists can help us and our clients a great deal. And when we need them, we want to be a good partner to them as well.

Bottom line is a client wants a partner who can satisfy as many of its needs as possible and manage an effective, integrated effort. In the end, that may be some combination that is driven by a full-service agency or specialty partner who has the success of your business in mind as much as their own.