Have we hit peak distributed agency network?

The pandemic has led to the rise of a cottage industry of remote talent networks.

There’s no time for innovation like a crisis. And agencies have been in need of innovation.

Over the past year, it feels as though I’ve spoken with at least a dozen agency or creative leaders who left the big holding companies to start their own ventures during the pandemic.

Often, that venture is borne out of frustrations and limitations of the holding company model.

Take Said Differently, launched last week by AKQA managing directors Rachel Barek and Brian Skahan, which staffs a rotating cast of people with the specific skill sets needed to solve a client’s problem, managed by senior talent. It’s a model in direct response to holding companies' tendency to bring in heavy hitters for a big pitch and then bait and switch with junior talent to staff the account once they’ve won it.

Or look at PLTFRMR, the branding agency launched by former TBWA global creative chief Chris Garbutt and McDonald’s former SVP of global marketing Colin Mitchell in November, which takes on rigid holding company structures by leveraging into a network of global freelance talent.

Then there’s Jay Gelardi and Russell Heubach, the Crispin Porter + Bogusky vets tapping into 2,000 creatives across 70 cities for clients like Tinder, Netflix and Twitch through a new freelance network called Gypsy.

And By The Network, launched by former Grey global creative chief Per Pedersen in October, who left the agency after nearly three decades to develop a collective of independent agencies that work together on integrated accounts with profit-sharing incentives.

Even Martin Sorrell has done it with S4, which he manages under a “unitary structure,” or single P&L, and simplifies with just two distinct brands: MightyHive and MediaMonks. It seems to be paying off.

Inefficiencies, silos, rigidness and bloat are at the heart of what these new agencies are trying to avoid. As Gypsy’s Gelardi put it, working with freelancers “allows us to put a smaller specialist team on a project and do away with inefficiencies.”

As PLTFRMR’s Garbutt explained: “In reality, it’s basically impossible for any agency to have every skill their client needs, let alone while ensuring they are the absolute best person for the job.”

While these networks were cropping up prior to 2020, COVID-19 accelerated their feasibility. 

All of the sudden, everyone was a remote worker. Layoffs across the industry made it easy to attract talented people. And it became clearer than ever that the world was changing, and the old way of doing things would no longer suffice. 

As consumer attention and communication fragment, brands need to move quickly to solve specific challenges or jump on fleeting opportunities to join relevant conversations. Pulling that off within a traditional agency structure is difficult. 

Opening up the talent pool beyond an agency’s four walls also has its benefits as skills become more specialized and problems more complex. As By The Network’s Pedersen told me: “When you incorporate all these skills into one agency, it becomes this enormous structure that’s difficult to manage and focus. Diversity in culture and skills are part of creativity.”

Holding companies are also leaning into these trends. Take Le Truc, Publicis Groupe’s new collective for creative talent across its agencies in New York to gather, share ideas and get their creative juices flowing. 

As they do, it’s not to say that these new agencies won’t get scooped up by the agencies they’re trying to outrun. Many of these networks already count the holding companies and large agencies as clients. Just yesterday, PLTFRMR was acquired by Virtue, the agency owned by Vice Media Group. 

I’ll be curious to see if these new models stick around or get swallowed back up by the larger bureaucratic entities they sought to break free from.

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