How Do Brands and Agencies Best Align Through an Agency’s Life Cycle?

By Nick Gray, Managing Director, Live & Breathe

I think it’s time more attention was paid to agency life cycles. Agency Analytics identifies four stages in an agency life cycle: conceptualisation, start-up, growth and establishment, and maturity. The concept is far from new, but the implications are under explored.

After more than 33 years Live & Breathe is on the cusp of leaving its teenage years behind and entering early adulthood as an agency. Despite our age, and having reached over 100 people, we’re often still referred to as an ‘established start-up’.

As an agency advances through its life cycle, the brands it is best equipped to work with changes too. Our agency today is worlds apart from where it started in terms of the clients it can work with effectively, and those it can’t. It’s a journey all agencies go through.

In that initial stage, agencies revolve around the owners and managers – often hard-working, ambitious generalists with a holistic and agnostic approach to client problems. They tend to lack processes in these early years.

So, while start-up agencies make great partners for start-up brands, they’re generally not the best fit for the John Lewis’s and Pepsis of our world – except maybe for small, left field projects when the brand wants some completely lateral thinking on.

Certainly, when we conducted client interviews much earlier in our agency life cycle, bigger companies would praise our creativity but describe us as “volatile”. From a brand’s point of view with younger agencies you can’t be quite sure what you’re going to get.

As a result, the tendency can be to leave the big, important jobs to the bigger agencies and give the smaller, perhaps sexier, slightly peculiar jobs to early-stage agencies. Which is probably fair enough.

From start-up to established

As they look to take on bigger clients, agencies find that generalists aren’t enough anymore. Bigger brands have countless specialists in different marketing disciplines which they need mirrored in their agency. If Nestlé wants to talk to you about shopper and category management, for example, you’d better have a category management expert to speak with them.

The sweet spot is when you reach the point of having a joined-up set of specialists who are still united by a start-up culture. That’s where we are now. It means you’re able to match up with the big brands on specialisms, but can still be agnostic in approach, with the ability to think laterally and act with agility.

That said, becoming a more established agency and working with bigger brands also means introducing more formal processes, and that can have a negative impact on your ability to continue working with start-up clients. Start-ups generally don’t work to briefs and deadlines and often want work executed immediately.

That’s ok when you’re still a start-up yourself, but once you put those formal processes in place, you can’t just break them down without toppling your whole agency. Sometimes that means letting go of relationships that worked brilliantly in the past but no longer do now. That’s not easy, but the trade off to work with bigger brands is usually worth it.

It used to be that the biggest brands would only work with agencies in that final stage of maturity, but these days those same brands are choosing to add smaller agencies and networks to their roster more than they ever have before. I like to think that’s in acknowledgement that smaller networks are capable of doing what the big networks do, but better, cheaper, and more creatively. Then again, I would say that. But there is a clear shift taking place.

Some big brands are willing to take a risk and adapt their processes to fit with the capabilities of a smaller network. One major brand allowed us to skip their seven-stage pitch process based on our credentials alone, knocking several big agencies out of the running. That was a pitch we ultimately won.

We used to walk into pitches against the global networks feeling self-conscious about our size and maturity. Now, it’s a status we’re proud of. Yes, of course capabilities need to align. But smaller networks shouldn’t be afraid to push hard for those big wins.