Farewell, Mad Men. Meet the New Agency Model: Embedded

Juan Zambrano
Marketing News Weekly
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Key Takeaways

​What? Traditional agencies can be a big risk for creative budgets.

So what? The embedded agency model offers the nimbleness of in-house staff on a freelance basis.

Now what? Evaluate if your creative needs could be best met by an embedded agency.

​Aug. 8, 2017

Embedded creatives allow for headcount flexibility with in-house know-how

When we hear the phrase ad agency, a few pop culture stereotypes likely come to mind: the dapper account lead, taking clients out for martini lunches. The beleaguered creative team, chain-smoking, working all hours of the night.

Sadly, there’s a large degree of truth to these clichés. And while there’s something to be said for martini lunches, it’s surprising most agencies still operate the way they have for decades—even as technology has transformed the business landscape around them. Now, like the taxi and hotel industries, marketing agencies have reached their own inflection point. What if a system existed where creativity could flow freely? Where amazing work gets delivered affordably, and at scale? I believe there is such a model. It’s called embedded marketing.

Why has the agency model had such a hard time evolving? One reason may be its relationship to creativity. Advertising has always been one of the ways a truly creative mind can thrive in a capitalist economy. Marketing campaigns provide a structure for new ideas and the allure of recognition for success (measured, of course, by revenue). Yet creativity carries its own set of stereotypes. We tend to think of it as a form of alchemy, something best done in solitude. And so the traditional agency model emerges: The client briefs the agency, the agency furtively creates, then everyone reconvenes for the big reveal. 


 "Pitch Meeting" - SNL


That’s where the trouble begins.

Sometimes it all works out—the client weeps at the brilliance of the concept, the ads run globally, the money pours in. In today’s market, however, this would be the exception, not the rule. What usually happens is that the agency discovers it’s misaligned with the client’s ask or expectations. Or the agency didn’t have the necessary understanding of the client’s infrastructure or market to craft a truly effective campaign. Maybe a key strategy changed. The competitor did the unexpected. The customer database can’t be segmented. In today’s world of integrated systems and Big Data, opportunities for error are rampant—and the cloistered agency just can’t keep up.

In the embedded marketing system, staff are embedded at the client site. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the client, they share lunches, they talk. And create. And revise. Along the way, they gain valuable insight into the client’s unique context—while maintaining enough perspective to do work that resonates. This deep engagement yields results that exceed expectations, integrate fully with the client’s existing infrastructure, and align with the latest go-to-market strategies. The process also allows the client to feel listened to and included—and like he or she shares ownership of any success. Best of all, it reduces the need for cycle after cycle of costly revisions. If an idea fails, it fails fast—before valuable resources have been appropriated. And because it’s safe to fail, it’s also safe to be wildly innovative. 

After my first experiences with this model, I wasn’t surprised when more and more clients began requesting to work this way. I was surprised by the unanticipated opportunities the model created. For example, we often work with startups, where most resources go to engineering. Typically, when the product team feels confident enough to start marketing, they realize their senior marketers are already at capacity. Hiring quality employees takes time, so a full agency is usually brought in—even though it’s costly and time-consuming, and there’s no one to offer direction. The embedded model provides interim senior marketers who come with a full agency behind them, so programs can be executed without a major, long-term commitment.

Another opportunity discovered via the embedded model is one that more mature companies regularly face: scale. For example, when we collaborate with companies like Airbnb, we’ll find marketing humming along at a steady clip. Then an amazing opportunity presents itself, and a massive program needs to be executed—fast. Again, the company must decide: Hire or engage a full-service agency? Hiring for a program that will be completed in three or six months is hard to justify, but so is signing on for minimum contracts with all the bells and whistles. With the embedded model, a middle way emerges.

In today’s economy, technology is transforming even our most storied brands. Development cycles are shortening, products are increasingly personalized and differentiation is critical. The need for effective marketing has never been greater. With the embedded model, I’m now confident that advertising can find its footing in this new world. I’m also comforted by the fact that this model opens a new door to creativity: inviting it out of the back room and the late-night hours, and offering it a true seat at the table.

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Author Bio:

Juan Zambrano
Zambrano is the founder of <a href="http://firewoodmarketing.com/" target="blank_">Firewood Marketing</a>.
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