Why regional specialty hubs are the future of the agency model

Any agency group that promises clients they have an office that’s a "one-stop shop for everything digital" is probably deluding itself. Without 400 to 500 people under one roof they can’t possibly do everything that falls under the digital transformation umbrella.

Digital transformation is now so complex, and changing so fast that the breadth of expertise required is staggering, let alone the paradoxical need for both scale and agility. For agency groups to meet the demands of increasingly complicated brand environments, they need to acknowledge their areas of strength, and adopt a model that relies on specialty hubs.

Marketing, digital and technology are now so sophisticated that agency groups will have to embrace regional specialisations if they plan on delivering clients anything of lasting value. To promise one office can produce top quality work across the whole digital board is a fantasy. It also does clients a big disservice as they stare down the enormous challenge of digital transformation.

Over the next 10 years, most consumer brands will embark on a digital transformation process that will require management consultancies, systems developers and creative industries to come together and collaborate. This avalanche of work is estimated to be worth US$2.1 trillion globally. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is more than enough money to go around.

But for agencies to make a meaningful contribution in this space, and to carry the mantle of creativity forward into a very technical future, they need to acknowledge their limitations. In short, agency groups need to stop promising that each of their digital agencies can do it all.

Currently there are lots of digital agencies with broad but shallow expertise. The number of deep, narrow skillsets needed to reliably guide brands through digital transformation presents these agencies with big challenges.

It’s here that specialty hubs have serious merit. Adopting this model allows for narrow expertise in each office to reach critical mass. When you have enough smart people in the room who all share a skillset, you create an environment where true innovation takes place.

Let’s remember, innovation typically isn’t giant leaps forward, it’s incremental gains that make existing technologies better or easier to use. This incremental improvement is what brands going through digital transformation will really need – making the customer experience more smooth and intuitive.

When you branch this thinking out through entire agency groups, you end with media and analytics in one place, experience and product design in another one, business strategy and integration skill in a third place, commerce in yet another place and technology somewhere else. The choice of a market to become a centre of excellence is obviously a function of the availability of talents in that market, but as importantly, will depend on the particular history and DNA of that network.

At MullenLowe Profero, we have chosen Japan for analytics, China for commerce and technology, Hong Kong/Singapore for business strategy and consulting, and Australia for experience design and UX. All of these hubs can collaborate on work, and ensure clients get the best product at each step on their pathway to unified brand platforms and customer experience.

The adoption of regional specialty hubs is perhaps the only way that agency groups can ensure they have the expertise needed to meaningfully contribute to the avalanche of digital transformation work that’s heading our way. Marketers need to know what to look for, and what questions to ask before deciding on any new agency partner.

This distributed model is a revolution for agency groups, and their people will need to learn to work with each other remotely on a daily basis. It can only work with a very strong unifying culture to counterbalance the fact that teams will work with each other remotely. Culture eats process for breakfast. The successful businesses will be the ones with the best culture, not the best process charts.

The writer is Vincent Digonnet, CEO of MullenLowe Profero APAC.