The fast, simple way to fix the retail/agency disconnect

Strip away the traditional agency model and bring your talent closer to clients.

When I started out in advertising back in the 90s, the print department of my agency was called "the boys in the basement." Why they were all male, I don’t know, and why they worked underground, I don’t know that either. On the latter point, I might guess it had something to do with their perceived status in the agency (management on the top floor, then creative, then the account handlers and so on), with print production somewhere near the bottom.

The work, mainly for big retail clients, involved resizing for all major national weekday and weekend papers. It was highly time sensitive, and the clients would provide pricing and inventory lists four days before publication dates for the team to send to repro the night before printing.

Fast forward two decades and the boys in the basement have since moved on, and everything is now digital. The need for speed remains, however, except that instead of four-day lead times, it’s now four hours.

Retail shoppers are buying at the speed of light. They have seemingly infinite choices and are beginning to expect same-day delivery, which is giving retailers all manners of new operational headaches.

Keeping up with this is challenging because marketing agencies need to be there, in the thick of the action, ready to help respond to a competitor or market opportunity and deal with threat in equal measure. Seasonality used to define retail peaks and troughs, but they are now much less predictable with the impact of social media, competitor activity, and commerce in general.

So why hasn’t the agency model evolved accordingly? What’s the modern equivalent to the basement team?

Today, my agency has an extensive onsite team inside a well-known U.S. retailer. A full agency function, with account management, creative directors, and so on. This model is fundamentally different from a traditional agency working externally. We are there, in the operational rhythm of their business, able to adapt and amend as we go. Information now passes to the agency nearly as fast as it passes through the client, allowing the team to be in lock step with the business. As a result, our work is 30 percent faster to market.

When agencies sit next to their clients, relationships deepen, the complexity of omnichannel is simplified, insight goes through the roof, and priorities and objectives align. In retail marketing, performance is everything, and even the tiniest optimization within the digital customer journey can have a dramatic impact on sales. And these moments happen more often when we work as one.

I haven’t met a retailer yet who isn’t interested in the cost of the marketing versus sales. Onsite agencies drive right to the heart of this ratio because they carry less overhead and can free up marketing dollars for other investments.

Both agencies and clients are calling for new models, new ways of collaborating that deliver more effective work, faster, and for less.

Modern marketing is getting more complex, and the need for talented agencies has never been stronger. But agencies need to find innovative new models to prosper, too -- because what those on the top floor didn’t say all those years ago was that it was the boys in the basement that were making them all the money.

James Sanderson is the managing director of Wunderman Inside.

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