The Uber of Agencies? Not Exactly.

Three Ways Brands and Agencies Can Form Long-Lasting AOR Relationships

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Marketers want to ensure on-demand access to ever-changing agency services. Can they call up shops as easily as Uber users summon a ride?
Marketers want to ensure on-demand access to ever-changing agency services. Can they call up shops as easily as Uber users summon a ride? Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Lately, there's been no shortage of hand-wringing as agencies and their clients continue to redefine their relationships in the face of a fractured, ever-evolving media and business landscape. Jack Neff's recent article took a look at the current state of affairs and explored whether an Uber-like relationship model might be the answer for brands striving to achieve a balance between strategic grounding and the services of multiple execution specialists who can deliver across platforms.

Some clients see themselves faced with a choice between building internal creative and strategic agencies -- a tough proposition considering that most corporate cultures are not built to support world-class creative talent -- or managing an unwieldy set of specialists to execute the ever-growing amount of content brands are now expected to produce across channels. The latter leaves brands without a clear way to develop the conceptual and strategic platforms these specialists need to base their work on.

With so many moving parts, it seems that the solution for today's brands is more like a quilt than a blanket.

The value proposition of the AOR, in the traditional sense anyway, is that they solve their client's biggest business problems with strategically informed creative answers. This is how CEOs and other executive leaders gain a fresh, creative, consumer-oriented perspective to drive their business agendas. Unfortunately, too many of today's client-agency relationships are no longer structured this way.

Somewhere along the line, creatively led agencies abdicated that seat at the table to less-creative, rationally minded consultancies. This has contributed to a devaluing of the AOR relationship and a lack of creatively rich thinking being applied to businesses' most confounding problems.

Many of today's agencies have slid further and further downstream -- deriving their value from promising communications-driven answers across multiple "channels." This is what led us to the point where social, digital, production and ad agencies are all jockeying for the AOR role.

This is why the client-agency relationship needs an Uber-like disruption, but not necessarily an Uber-like model.

Clients still need a centralized creative partner that can internalize their challenges and provide fresh, creative business solutions -- those relationships just need to look different than they have in the past. The solution for brands isn't just about finding a partner with global reach, scale or a communications-first orientation, and it isn't about putting digital practitioners at the center.

It is about finding a lead agency partner with the talent and expertise to help clients navigate an increasingly complex, fast-moving world -- by providing simple, rigorous, informed, creative platforms and playbooks that agency partners, executive leaders and internal teams can all work from. This modern "AOR" must be part business consultant, part brand manager, part communications strategist, and part integrator -- and it must do it all through a creative lens.

Here's what agencies and brands need to do to create lasting AOR relationships and powerful results:

1. Develop whole-brain creative platforms. Companies need solutions to complex left-brain challenges that span business, product, market and channel issues. But now more than ever, they also face complex right-brain challenges requiring creative inspiration, cultural relevance, integration and the ability to rally multiple "makers" around a common agenda. This is the opportunity for creative, data-driven agencies to provide clients with a brand playbook to guide them through the delivery of strategic, creative and activation platforms. These platforms are crucial for brands working to maintain a cohesive voice and vision in a scattered landscape.

2. Create highly collaborative, open processes. Clients should partner closely with a lead agency and use an integrated playbook in managing a diverse coalition of creative makers that will likely include teams from the lead agency, internal client resources, specialist agencies and the array of content creators that exist today. Throughout the process, all parties need to embrace an open, highly collaborative, co-creation model that can produce ideas that span borders and mediums.

3. Use a pay-for-value compensation model. As agencies and clients settle into new types of relationships, there is an opportunity for new, better compensation models to emerge. While past AOR models may have favored agencies, and newer, project-based fees may favor clients, this evolved relationship enables a fair approach that combines the best historical approach for each aspect of the relationship. The result can be a compensation plan where agencies are paid consultant fees for foundational platform and playbook planning; a retainer to secure the senior team for ongoing leadership and integration management; and project fees scoped for the downstream deliverables -- all apportioned from one fee budget and governed by one master services agreement (MSA). The "quilted" model can help reframe the discussion around compensation and value in our performance-based era.

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