It’s Time to Fire Your Agency of Record

And switch over to a team of specialists instead

Often an AOR keeps things too general when a specialist can instead provide a clearer, more detailed insight. Getty Images
Headshot of Nate Houghteling

Not long ago, an agency of record (AOR) was the centerpiece of a successful advertising strategy. To execute an approach that included television, radio, print, outdoor and digital, a brand needed a single agency to conduct the orchestra. The general formula for these firms was simple and effective: Start with a big idea, articulate it in a TV spot and then let the message cascade down to everything other medium. Otherwise there would be chaos, right?

But over the last decade, the conditions that gave rise to the AOR have shifted. The gulf between what worked on traditional versus digital platforms widened dramatically. The digital landscape also splintered into dozens of self-contained platforms, each with its own audience preferences and language. Native content driven by digital stars is outperforming interruptive commercials. And it’s not that close.

In this new order, many brands have begun calling into question the utility of the AOR, once the indispensable arbiter of “the message.” And with good reason: When the number of marketing channels a brand needs to have a strategy for jumps from five to 25, the specialists are suddenly more valuable than the generalists. Who hasn’t been on a pre-launch conference call dominated by the specialists while the AOR stays on mute and hopes no one will notice?

If this headline scares you a little, I get it. You’ve gotten used to having your AOR around. They dress well, but not too well. They treat you to boozy dinners and box seats. They speak in a way that is intoxicatingly non-specific. But like any relationship that’s past its expiration date, when it’s time, it’s time.

For those brands looking to replace their AOR with a team of specialists who can thrive in the current era of platform and audience proliferation, here are a few ways to cut the cord.

Write your own briefs

It used to be one of the primary roles of the agency of record to interpret a brand’s message and communicate it to the other partners through a creative brief. When the list of partners was short and the majority of the teams were executors, this order of operations made sense. With the diffusion of advertising across platforms, however, the intermediary role of the AOR only serves to muddy the message.

When the number of marketing channels a brand needs to have a strategy for jumps from five to 25, the specialists are suddenly more valuable than the generalists.

Brands that forego the agency interpreter and write their own briefs level up in two big ways. First, they create a direct line of communication with all of their partners, not just the one at the top, thus enabling each to understand how every thread of the strategy connects. Second, and most importantly, they make it harder to obscure the questions that really matter—Who is the audience? What is our mission?—with buzzwords.

Build your team from the ground up

While generalist creative agencies have stretched and contorted to try and cover the ever-expanding universe of digital, a new crop of companies have taken a different approach.

These specialist teams started from the bottom, gaining experience through work that put them in direct contact with the platforms where your audience spends their time. From social media specialists to digital production companies to influencer marketing firms, these are the teams that know how to capture the attention of a very specific type of viewer. They can act on trends as they’re happening rather than referencing them several months (or years) later as a slide in a deck.

If the audience you want to reach lives across multiple platforms, each with its own unique set of rules, how do you reach them? By rejecting the one-size-fits-all approach and working directly with the teams who know these platforms best.

Reward collaboration

Building a team of specialists presents an inherent organizational challenge. In addition to determining the message, the AOR also ensured that there was a level of communication and coordination across teams and specialties. Without a general contractor, how do you make sure the tiles match the cabinets?

The answer lies in creating a culture that rewards collaboration. “Plays well with others” is a cliché that companies slap on their website, but few are actually good at it. Work with teams that have a proven track record of collaborating successfully (make them show you the receipts through their references!) and then put an incentive structure in place that puts a premium on cross-pollinating between agencies and platforms. Invite all your partners to a summit to learn about the brand and work together. Set aside budget for special projects that come about as a result of specialists working together.

In a time when every medium requires its own message, it’s a mistake to think one big idea will be repeated everywhere or that one big agency can manage the whole process. That’s why it’s time to shed the AOR security blanket and get to work alongside the specialists that can help you break through the noise. Once you’ve done that, then by all means treat yourself to those box seats. You’ve earned it.


@nhoughte Nate Houghteling is a co-founder and executive producer at Portal A.
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