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Full-service vs. niche: Brands split on which agency route to go

As marketers increasingly look to build out their mobile initiatives, cross-channel and goal-driven campaigns are forcing brands to either ask for more collaborative efforts from their full-service agencies or branch out and work with a mobile-specific agency.

Budget money continues to move towards mobile as marketers invest in the medium to reach new groups of consumers. However, this is causing the role of a full-service agency to change as more specialized and niche agencies look to also work more closely with brands.

?Mobile-dedicated agencies have needed to evolve quite a bit since the early days when the market demand trended toward tactical executions,? said Jiyoung Kim, senior vice president of creative solutions at Ansible, New York.

?Our clients are asking us to demonstrate leadership in the area of mobility ? as in, what happens when consumers are moving about their day ? and they're requiring us to run across their offline, below the line, online and social efforts,? she said.

?You can imagine how different that skill is compared to being asked to build an app.?

Mobile-first mentality
EMarketer predicts that mobile will account for $7.7 billion of the expected $41.9 billion spend in 2013. Although the medium still represents a small piece of budgets, mobile?s role is growing more quickly than expected as desktop spend is dipping.

Agencies have been building up their mobile presences in the past few years to accommodate for more brands investing in the medium.

According to Ms. Kim, as brands continue to pour money into mobile, they also expect more across the strategy, media, creative, development and analytic implementations of their initiatives from these agencies.

For instance, brands are now interested in using mobile to influence the point-of-purchase moment and want to tap into the consumer behaviors and needs around them.

Traditionally, brands have used mobile to drive leads, but as mobile proves its merit in increasing awareness and brand affinity, agencies are getting more campaigns where mobile is playing a strategic role than it has in the past.

?Mobile expertise is about looking at the world from a mobile-only or mobile-best perspective across the consumer journey,? Ms. Kim said. ?The mobile-too approach is over.?

Need for full-service
As mobile and social move closer together, departments cannot work independently at agencies, per Alex Jacobs, vice president and director of social marketing at Digitas, San Francisco.

?To view social, content or mobile marketing in isolation simply cannot deliver business solutions with staying power,? Mr. Jacobs said.

?Social is how content is shared and distributed to consumers across a wide variety of platforms, devices and screens ? increasingly mobile ones with adoption rising at a clip ? and without considering the content that flows through the system, the mobile device is just a blank screen,? he said.

Mobile-only approach
As brands expect more from their agencies across multiple mediums, the role of mobile-only agencies is also growing for some brands looking for help in one specific area.

Additionally, the medium is still fairly new to brands, meaning that they are looking for specialized help in one area.

These agencies can also be helpful for brands looking to experiment across several different mobile mediums.

?Brands are nervous about the complexities of mobile and frustrated by poor experiences,? said Ed Chater, New York-based vice president of media operations at Somo.

?Often mobile teams at brands are small and they need an agency with a large dedicated team to help them keep on top of what is happening in mobile,? he said.

?Not many agencies ? especially non-specialists ? are set up to manage all the complexity. It takes dedicated teams and specialist technology to make sense of it all. This is tricky to implement in traditional agency structures due to already eroding margin pressures.?

Challenges for both
Nowadays, there are significant challenges for both full-service and niche agencies as marketing becomes more integrated for brands.

?The biggest challenge is in creativity, which in mobile is more reliant on skills commonly associated with owned media,? said Tina Unterlaender, San Francisco-based director of mobile at AKQA.

?The initial disappointments in mobile creative sprang from a misguided attempt to shrink the laptop experience,? she said.

The full-service agencies also have their fair share of problems too, though.

According to Ms. Unterlaender, mobile and social are acquired competencies, which basically means that large agencies are still sometimes seeing mobile as an add-on to a campaign. With this type of thinking, mobile stalls the opportunity for brands to excite and communicate with consumers.

The clash of different ideas and skill sets can also cause the relationship between a brand?s digital agency of record and a mobile agency to be rocky.

?If a smooth, collaborative relationship is established, mobile agencies add great consumer insights in how consumers continue to use devices in new ways and have technical expertise to inform best-in-class mobile solutions,? Digitas? Mr. Jacobs said.

?Where it breaks down is when,? he said. ?But a mobile idea that doesn't consider other disciplines and more global business needs and the other efforts in market, from loyalty to CRM, acquisition, engagement, branding and core messaging, is a miss, if not a recipe for failure entirely.?

Final Take
Lauren Johnson is associate reporter on Mobile Marketer, New York