In the wake of challenges such as the global pandemic and exponential rise of digital, combined with added pressure in areas such as sustainability and diversity and inclusion, 75% of major multinationals said that they were ‘somewhat satisfied’ or less with their current agency roster structure.

According to research from the World Federation of Advertisers and The Observatory International, nearly seven in 10 (69%) major multinational brands had recently made, or planned to make, changes to their roster to reflect the new world order and their desire for a different structure.  In 2018, a similar WFA study found that major multinationals recognised that their roster set-up was not meeting their needs sufficiently, and 60% of respondents then said that they were looking to reduce the number of agencies on their roster.

In the last four years, new challenges such as rapidly changing consumer behaviours and the digital revolution have reinforced the need for new arrangements, said the report.

Like their global counterparts, some clients in Asia are also feeling the need for change. Alvin Neo, chief customer and marketing officer at NTUC Enterprise and FairPrice, explained that clients in Asia are generally moving towards centralisation of agency roster, with varying degrees of in-housing. This enables a more cohesive strategic direction and governance of brand building and customer engagement.

“Client-side marketers are organising themselves to deliver more precise, data-driven marketing efforts that are less about the traditional big bang campaigns, and more about sustained cumulative building of relationships with their core customers and nurturing key communities,” he said.  Agencies need to likewise organise themselves or partner to complement this.

Enabled by better leverage of data and insights combined with a more fragmented media and social space, most consumer-focused clients are increasingly looking for a more effective and efficient way to target and engage consumers in a connected and personalised manner along their journey.

Meanwhile,  Linda Wang , head of lifestyle marketing of Cathay Pacific, said the company will not change its agency rosters at the current stage since it has just restructured the rosters when Asia Miles marketing team merged in. "We need to monitor the performance of the new agency rosters that were just implemented, before looking for new changes," Wang added. 

Is there a need for a lead?

A roster transformation process is not simple or without challenges – getting the right model for your organisation takes time, resource, mass stakeholder engagement and, more often than not, outside third-party assistance to be successful. 

According to the study, currently, the dominant model used by respondents is “multiple agencies managed individually by marketing” (90%). However, many use a variety of core models across their operations, which perhaps underline the complexities of developing fit-for-purpose roster architectures. 

For Changi Airport Group, which recently also called for a pitch for creative and digital agencies , the brand still sees a high degree of specialisation of agencies, making it hard to stick to one agency in the roster.

“As a client, I welcome agencies that can support us as an integrated marketing partner. So, the ability to provide a full suite of communications services is preferred. Unfortunately, the industry still sees a high degree of specialisation and it is not possible to stick to one agency in the roster,” said Ivan Tan, group senior vice president, corporate & marketing communications at Changi Airport Group.

However, despite the slew of specialists agencies available in the market, Linda Hassan, group chief marketing officer at Domino's Pizza Malaysia and Singapore said the need for a lead agency is still prevalent. In her view, even when a brand decides to stay away from the title of ‘agency of record’, and work with multiple agencies, there still needs to be a clear lead-agency to closely with the CMOs to come out with “Big Idea” upon distillation of business and consumer insight.

“In an eco-system where the business is relatively small and marketing team is very lean, the agency of record still works best as they function very much like the internal team itself providing full support and involving in all aspect of solving the business problem through better communications,” she added.

Thereafter, ensuring the support agencies usually made up of content creators, public relations, numerous design studios are guided and the right expectation is set to deliver enhanced performance and agency productivity and cost effectiveness. “In doing this, the steps to determine the ideal structure, composition and size of the roster structure need to be first established,” she added.

Hassan added that one of her in-market teams is currently working on multiple agency format to allow each specialist in the system to bounce ideas and enable the end to end work even on smaller projects.  “Working with multiple agencies to develop smaller campaigns that can be digitally-led, influencer-led, or on-ground activation led allows for brands to create innovative solutions with a ‘fail fast , fail forward’ mentality,” she added.

Commenting on working with global agency on record’s, Hassan added that the only area that needs to change in this ecosystem is the cost and performance optimisation and having the right specialist within the system itself to ensure alignment and further effective use of the agency time where needed.

Agreeing with Hassan is Terry Tsang, director of Hong Kong's ad agency Narrow Door. Tsang said that some clients prefer to control everything and handle various agencies on their own, while some choose to rely on one single lead agency to manage all other parties, "I tend to agree on lead agency approach as I said, but it all depends on the marketing budget and nature of the client. For sophisticated marketers who are well aware of all their objective and familiar with the marketing mix, they are more ready to engage the client-centric approach," Tsang added. 

"We have client like that which only engaged us for core creative idea and main creative asset production. They will adapt the concept to different communication tools using different agency partners. The outcome is not perfect but acceptable especially when taking cost optimisation into consideration," Tsang said.

Reasons for evolution are a plenty

According to Chris Chiu, vice president creative and content at Mandai Wildlife Group who has extensive experience on the agency side holding roles such as chief creative officer at DDB, JWT and Leo Burnett, the need to reformat rosters and structures isn’t new.

“For quite a while now, the rosters have been changing and for various reasons. The majority seemed to have steered toward the side of breaking up from one main agency offering a consortium of specialist divisions into a handful of specialist agencies from differing agencies and even holding companies,” he shared.

When asked for the reasons, Chiu added that there isn’t always a cookie cutter answer. “From costs to quality; and from a decision made at HQ (wherever that may be) to working with a specific person(s), the reasons are endless. Every way is right until it isn't I suppose,” he added.

What's most important is a mutual comprehension of the business issues and the want to create something that will work better than most by both, Chiu added.

Echoing the fact that multiple reasons could at the helm of the chance, Julia Kraft, senior manager, global marketing services at the WFA said that the accelerating rate of change in consumer behaviour and digital usage makes it highly likely that most rosters are heading for a period of constant evolution as brands seek new ways to be more effective with their marketing communications.

 “The one consistent element in all this is that there’s no silver bullet for all because businesses, and the way they engage with their customers, vary significantly from company to company, then so must the model – not only from the agency perspective but also in terms of how the client is organised themselves,” said Stuart Pocock, founder and managing partner at The Observatory International.

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