The Shift From AOR… to AORN

Based solely on the number of credentialed registrants at CES earlier this month, it’s fair to say that the marketing and advertising agency landscape is both, complex and complicated. Small shops, big shops, integrated agencies, specialized agencies, consultancies and holding companies are all competing for pieces of brands’ marketing budgets. And the rise in brands and companies investing in internal capability development has in no way eliminated the need for external partners, vendors and agents.

Adding to the linguistic and logistical confusion around agency-client relationships, the “AOR” – or agency of record” – has lost all meaning whatsoever. There are now Digital AORs (agency of record), Search AORs, Creative AORs, Social AORs, Media AORs, Programmatic AORs… you name the offering, service or product, and there is an agency who will want to be called your AOR.

With just a few exceptions, the days of long-standing agency-client retainers are waning, a result of all of the aforementioned brand-side transformations, technology innovations, talent migration and evolving consumer expectations. But, how do you know what the right relationship model is?

Simply put: as a brand, you no longer need an AOR, you need an AORN: an agency of “right now.”

Here is what AORN really means:

  • Comfortable working on a project basis. Sure, long-term relationships are great, and you can build toward a longer-term retained relationship, but a solutions-oriented mentality means thinking about how to efficiently solve immediate challenges AND help solve for the long-term business objectives. There isn’t always time to walk before you run, but a great AORN sees big ideas AND gets shit done.
  • They fill the gaps, doesn’t create new ones. Building in-house “agency-like” teams has proven to be a viable model for some disciplines within companies, but few have the means to fully staff for all needed capabilities. It’s just not cost effective to hire specialists for every role. Not to mention that we’ve begun to see many brands scale back some of these in-sourced operations, bringing in more ad hoc partners to fill gaps and bolster existing personnel/capabilities.
  • Willing to work as an extension of your team. This is more often a mindset than an actual operational model, but it doesn’t have to be. At revelation, we often embed our specialists directly within a client’s environment – short-term or long-term – and have mastered the multi-directional communication that this requires.
  • Balanced integrated and specialized services. Even if your AORN is filling gaps in highly specialized ways, with limited parameters and functions, those that can offer a more integrated variety of services leverage that cross-functional knowledge to make the work they ARE doing better. Having creatives who are used to working with, and sit near, insights analysts and strategists makes them more well-rounded creatives!
  • No sales roles or “Biz Dev” folks. Here’s a secret that most agencies don’t want you to know: You end up paying for non-billable, overhead roles, anyway… you’re just doing it in the context of higher rates on billable roles. Working with leaner teams means less overhead, therefore, lower cost to you. And as a client, don’t you want to hear from and work directly with the subject matter experts and capability leads who can truly understand your business?
  • There is no creative stagnation. I’ve worked with countless agency teams – account, strategy, creative, etc., – who spent multiple years thinking about, working on, and connected to the same client. There is an appeal to consistency in resources, but knowing how quickly creatives can go stale, AORNs can be a perfect solution.
  • They put the “custom” back in “customer.” Instead of selling you on a defined set of services or solutions, a great AORN will create a custom, bespoke way of working for every single client. Efficient agency staffing models is both, art and science, but one that so many fail to perfect. Agencies that stack layers of seniority, from top to bottom, are wasteful. Find a partner who will be just that… a partner that is willing to listen, learn, understand your ways of working and objectives, and then able to offer lean, agile resourcing, financial and operational models that service everyone’s collective best interests.

All of the above qualities of an AORN start with one simple skill: active listening. The best agency partners listen first, middle and last. They know the right questions to ask and understand how to get the most out of the answers they hear. They’re “steppers,” not “leapers.” They’re solution-driven, data-driven, objective-driven and success-driven. They truly value project management over (or in addition to) account management and understand that interpretation will always be more valuable than simple translation.

And by “they,” I obviously mean “we.”