Solving the Creative Agency Conundrum

At the turn of the 20th century, a customer buying a Ford automobile had one choice: the Model T. Every car came in the same color (black), with the same tires and the same features. Back then, Ford saw cars as a utilitarian upgrade from a horse. One model got the whole job of moving from point A to point B done.

What does this have to do with agencies?

For decades, companies treated their agencies like a Model T: a one-size-fits-all solution for their creative needs. Like the Model T, the solution worked, but it wasn’t ideal.

Because timelines, budgets, and skills required differ so much per project that no single agency can possibly be experts in everything. Which potentially means having to balance quality with convenience.

How agencies fit today

Creative needs vary so much in our fast-moving and ever-evolving digital world. One project may require an augmented reality specialist for an interactive mobile campaign. Another project may need to jump on a trending hashtag, which requires going from ideation to execution within hours.

That’s why inventive companies aren’t relying just on their agency of record (AOR) for all marketing projects. Companies are also working with several smaller agencies, sometimes asking them to work together for more-cohesive results.

With the variety of boutique firms and freelance experts available, the challenge now is understanding how to use your AOR and other vendors to achieve greater project results for every dollar spent.

The way to do that is by rethinking the single AOR idea and adopting a total agency strategy instead. This begins with answering the following three questions:

Who should do the work?

Your AOR may be great at developing and executing large campaigns, but if you have a project that requires niche skills, you might get better results from a specialized boutique firm. Other times, you may need independent talent to fill skills gaps or meet a tight deadline.

Before turning a project over, ask who should do the work. Assigning work to match a resource’s strength can help you fill talent gaps to optimize spend, time, and results.


Closely related to who should do the work is making sure you have the best agency doing it—one that meets your skills, timeline, and budget concerns. This requires you to have access to a quality network of agencies.

If you don’t have a large network, you can build one efficiently through freelancing platforms such as Upwork. Agencies on Upwork can handle any size project, since they range from small firms with a handful of employees to large firms with more than 1,000.

“Let’s say you need to get a large project off the ground but you don’t have the expertise and resources. Using traditional methods—tapping your local network to source and then getting information to vet agencies—takes time and effort. And that’s before you even start the work. Sourcing agencies on Upwork doesn’t just save you time, but the large marketplace gives you more choices so you also find the right agency.” —Bonnie Sherman, VP of Product, Upwork

What’s more, you’re searching a global pool of agencies, so you’re more likely to get the ideal firm that fits your project’s requirements.

With the right talent in place, the last question to ask is…

How do I manage all this?

Marketing teams require so many specialties that programs may need two or three agencies working together. For example, your branding agency might work with your paid-advertising agency as part of a digital campaign.

Exchanging documents, tracking progress, and communication between agencies can get messy—especially if they’re located in different parts of the globe. More companies are making it easier for agencies to collaborate with one another by bringing them onto online platforms such as Upwork.

These platforms also make it easier for internal teams to find agencies with the expertise needed. Through their collective expertise, internal teams can gain the branding, product, and other knowledge they need to create better results, faster.

What’s exciting here is that as companies devise new ways of getting more done, agencies are shifting to jump on for the ride. They see that by remaining open to possibilities outside of the single AOR model, everyone is destined for greater opportunities and growth.