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Brandstand: Is the integrated agency a colossal scam?

The large integrated network agency, in its current format, is a major scam impairing the growth of the brands being served. At best, it is a collection of competent individual skill-sets, shamelessly purporting to be an orchestrated solution mechanism

Most integrated communication agencies in India, especially the larger network versions, qualify unhappily as full-fledged scams. To be fair, the intent of management is usually noble but the construction and execution dangerously short in effectiveness. The fault lies in the manufacturer’s mind set, delinked considerably from the experiential realities.

To understand this problem in depth, let us start with the basics. In the 21st century, the agency model witnessed strategic disintegration, the media and creative functions being separated. Around that time only, the craft of communication became highly diversified, driven largely by the digital evolution and its allied opportunities. Larger creative agencies, for reasons ranging from myopia to prioritisation, failed to become the new-age provider, garage enterprises driven by entrepreneurship fulfilling the demands of clients. Till, one day once again, the big bosses in their fragile towers figured that they needed the entire mix to survive, not just grow, as digital competencies became revenue spinners, image drivers and insurance policies for the uncertain future.

Quite like a Lego ensemble, the networks scrambled to set up their integrated agencies, choosing one of two popular routes. The first being organic development, which usually failed because of insecurities — the old order giving the Young Turks legs but not wings, lest their primacy suffer. What did not help was the poor emerging-domain knowledge of the stalwarts, leading to inaccurate assessment of operational and strategic situations. The second route was predictably acquisition, leading to successful start-ups being merged into a larger whole, their competence certainly without doubt. Yet, they thrive mostly in their domain horizons due to the paucity of group-level vision and thrust.

To understand further, do permit me the usage of two commonly-understood comparisons. The integrated agencies of large networks normally behave like the banquets divisions of large hotels. For a wedding or a MICE event, the hotel will gladly provide Chinese, Indian, Western, Lebanese and similar specialities — the buffet spread filled with separate sections of such fare, depending on choice and budget. However, if you asked the F&B person to get two master chefs to collaborate, to create a Biryani Bibimbap or a Dumpukht-style DimSum, a positive response would be unlikely. Chiefly because there is no culture of such collaboration, as from a customer-preference perspective most diners are delighted with mutually-exclusive delights. In the large integrated networks, you will still get great advertising campaigns, powerful digital ideas, effective media and activation solutions in isolation — they are simply not tuned to become a single integrated experience. Unlike the hotel diner, the brand owner requires and deserves this genuine unification.

Now, consider the second parallel, closer to what the agency model should be.  Each time you visit a hospital, you can behave like a diner, choosing the specialisation that you need. Yet, if are down with a serious illness, the genuine culture of integration creeps in — the lead consultant, the GP or the primary care-giver, marshalling a body of collaborative experts to find the cure. There is genuinely a single leader who is strategizing the solution, earning her role due to the deepest understanding of the patient’s problem, not due to revenue or seniority considerations. Agencies need to emulate this approach urgently in order to offer scalable integration, implementing the Lead Consultant mechanism, getting rid of revenue or hierarchical insecurities.

There are certain simple principles that will drive the Lead Consultant model in genuinely-integrated agencies. Quite like the hospital model, she must be from the most-vital discipline for the brand — in this case, unconnected to the existing or prime source of current revenues. So, if an agency has an FMCG advertising account but the brand’s key thrust is online (handled by another agency), the lead must be from the digital marketing domain, even if temporarily leading a mass-media conversation. Automatically, the lens of conversation becomes state-of-art and even if the initial output is the press ad, it becomes sharper and the client sees value in consolidating business. For pitches, this template is followed with the Lead Consultant marshalling the necessary cross-functional resources to deliver for the business. Nowadays, the so-called integrated agencies are simply assembling man and machine, without this vital conduit for offering integrated experiences.

A lot more must change for the Lead Consultant model to work. Insecurities of position and departmental revenues, the stock-in-trade of this sector, must give way to high-quality visionary leadership, ideally from unconnected cadres. Critical to this is the Integrated Balance Sheet, a single document of business performance that evaluates people through group-level outcome measures, not divisional triumphs. Continuous training must re-enter the agency DNA –Lead Consultants must be multi-disciplinary all-rounders, from the foundation of a constantly-honed core expertise. Special certification programmes will be compulsory for every employee, confirming their continuing relevance, just as old-world surgeons must learn minimally-invasive techniques. Limiting HR structures must be re-crafted, merging specialisation with universality, everybody the jack-of-all-trades and the master of one.

The large integrated network agency, in its current format, is a major scam impairing the growth of the brands being served. At best a collection of competent individual skill-sets, shamelessly purporting to be an orchestrated solution mechanism. Some of the smaller and mid-sized players are surely on the right path but the big guns are committed to a suicidal dive. Embarking sincerely on the Lead Consultant path, introduced as above, will certainly be a valuable measure of course-correction.

 (Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at:

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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