Full Service Digital Agencies For Dummies
She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type.”
- TANGLED UP IN BLUE
I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked. When I started this blog, I planned to post a lot more from the “Agency Perspective” but all the recent CMS activity has kept me busy. This post was the post I planned to write first as it helps to set the scene for things I’d like to talk about in the future. So, “Hello Everyone”. Welcome to my blog.
What is a Full Service Digital Agency?
Let’s start with just the Digital Agency part, and use Wikipedia for that:
A digital or new media agency is a business that delivers services for the creative and technical development of internet based products. These services range from the more generalist such as web design, e-mail marketing and microsites etc. to the more specialist such as viral campaigns, banner advertising, search engine optimisation, podcasting or widget development etc.
The million dollar question: What exactly is a Full Service Digital Agency? I’m going to take some liberties here and invent a new acronym: FSDA. Everyone and his dog seem to be one these days. New Media Age (NMA) tracks Agencies in their Top 100 Interactive Agencies list. I wouldn’t trust everything you read in here. Most of the numbers are volunteered by the agencies themselves, so you’re never quite sure how reliable they are. One interesting aside – the agencies have to put themselves into one of three categories: Marketing, Design & Build or Technical. Quite a few of the agencies listed would love to pick more than one of these, but you are forced to choose. Rules is rules. As a techie, I’d prefer to see us listed as “Design & Build”, but that does seem to exclude many of the other services we offer. So we’re listed as Marketing. I’m a marketeer now, I guess.
As most of you know, I work for LBi in the London office (for the purposes of this post, I’m only going to talk about the UK market in isolation, although in reality I spend a fair bit of my time working with the other offices in the network). We call ourselves “The Largest Full Service Digital Agency in the UK”. I’m going to off-brand and say we’re quite possibly also the smallest Full Service Digital Agency in the UK, if indeed it is possible to be Full Service at all. For the record, the 2008 Top 10 Agencies (by Turnover) is shown above. We’re the biggest by headcount in this list but, as I said, some of the numbers in here might be crap. The LBi headcount numbers are correct. I’ll post more about these numbers some other time. We’ve got about 350 permanent employees in the UK.
What are the services?
So, what do all of these people do in an FSDA? By definition, everything digital. I’m not going to attempt to say what this is, but I will outline what my agency does by listing all the departments in our London office. To stop myself rambling, I’ve decided on a self-imposed 140 character limit per department. All you crazy people can tweet the definitions to your friends. Or tweet me better definitions if you don’t like mine. Especially if you’re from LBi and I’ve insulted your department. I haven’t mentioned User Centered Design here as this is a key philosophy that spans all departments. In a vague project order:
- Planning & Strategy – Consultancy, Business Plans, financial models, requirements, user research/testing, personas, planning and buying
- Experience Architecture – Information architecture (sitemaps, taxonomy), requirements, wireframes, usability
- Concept & Design – The Officially Creative People. Concepting, Design, making things look pretty, copy writing, win lots of awards
- Technology - Architecture, Product Selections, Interface Dev (CSS/HTML/JS), App Dev (Java/C#), RIA (Flash, Adobe), Testing, QA
- Managed Services – Live projects. Hosting, maintenance, monitoring, application support, incremental development, tickets, help desks
- Media - Where to spend your online media budget, keywords to bid on, place ads. Campaigns, email marketing, outbound email comms
- SEO - Get you into the first page of Google organically. Analyse algorithms. Semantic markup, crafted content, link building. Analytics.
- Delivery Management – Ensure projects are delivered, as usual, on time and under budget. Producers, Project and Programme Managers
- Client Services – Keep existing clients sweet and “grow” accounts. New Business Development (Sales) and Account Management. Play Golf
That’s 9 different departments. Within each department, things can get even more specialised. For example, our Technology department is split into 3 sub-departments: Technical Architecture, Quality Assurance and Development. The Development Department is split into Interface Development, Rich Internet Applications, Microsoft and Java. Within each of these, things get even more specialised. As the interwebs mature and spread, the number of technologies we need to be expert in continues to grow. And it isn’t going to converge any time soon. Other departments specialise in a similar way. Note that these departmental divisions are often more of an organisational need then a working reality. We try to get our teams to blend well together and many individuals could easily fit in to many of the little boxes on the org chart.
Does Size Matter?
Ignoring our internal “Core Services” (HR, Finance, Operations, Resourcing, Office Services, Marketing and Upper Management) which every company has to have, I’m told, we’ve probably got a shade over 300 “project work” people in our London office. The rough breakdown of department size by headcount looks something like this:
The information isn’t top secret, in case anyone was wondering. We disclose it on our NMA Listing (albeit mapped to their categories). When you break it down like this, an uber-agency of 350 people suddenly has less than 40 project managers (which means less than 40 active projects), under 60 designers, and less than 80 techie nerds like me. Which brings me to my point. In order to provide all the services we need to provide in order to be a credible FSDA, we couldn’t be any smaller. I’d say that any company under 300 people cannot begin to claim to be an FSDA.
It is also interesting, referring back to the Top 5 from the NMA list, that all of them have a similar number of employees. Why aren’t there any agencies with more than 400 people? The short answer – because it is difficult to keep the “agency vibe” using the structures needed to manage a massive company. The larger agencies are not trying to be like the big IT services/consultancies (Atos, Deloitte, KPMG, Accenture, Fujitsu, Cap Gemini, PWC, Wipro etc). They’re trying to behave more like a “boutique”, while maintaining the scale, professionalism and expertise needed to service the major accounts.
Neil Potter from RedWeb (another FSDA) blogged about FSDAs recently on his excellent blog . He argues that the LBi view of full service (a one stop shop that can provide everything) is outdated. While I do agree that being truly full service is probably impossible, I think a handful of agencies (in the UK) get pretty close. Neil’s blog entry says:
As Richard Sedley, Director of cScape Customer Engagement Unit and Course Director for Social Media at Chartered Institute of Marketing, told me “Today you can be full service with a limited focused offering”. I like this. “Full service” doesn’t have to mean jack of all trades. In fact, it shouldn’t mean that at all. Nowadays clients need specialists; people who know their discipline intimately and who can work with the client from conception of the idea to delivering the end product, and then studying its performance. This is where the real skill and expertise comes in.
I don’t understand the quote from Richard Sedley. Full Service does not mean “limited focused offering”. Can anyone shed any light on this for me? I agree with the rest. Of course Full Service doesn’t mean jack of all trades. Of course you need specialists. You need lots of them. You need more than 300 employees to have them, too. Yes, size matters.
You didn’t answer the question!
Sorry. In closing, I’ll define an FSDA as a Digital Agency that provides all the services you need – a one stop shop. Of course there will be gaps in the offerings, but the FSDA should have partners to help plug these. Often customers will only engage an FSDA to perform a small subset of their services. This can be a very sensible “avoid all eggs in one basket” strategy, or they already have specialist agencies with which they’re very happy. In these cases, the various agencies on the account need to work closely together. Other customers will choose to use all of the services offered as they see benefits gained when different disciplines blend. Or they just want one agency to shout at if things go tits up.
Some parts of an FSDA compete with more traditional above the line marketing agencies. Other parts (like mine) will compete with pure play systems integrators, although it looks to me like the SIs are trying to become more like agencies these days, introducing elements of the User Centered Design process into their traditionally purely technically offering.
Seeing as I’ve been agency-side for the last 10 years, I’ve got a decent understanding of most of the disciplines. But of course I know most about the technical ones, and that is what I plan to use this blog to talk about. If you do have any particular burning issues you’d like me to focus on, please let me know. Nothing quite like pandering to a non-existent audience …