How to hire a creative agency that fits your brand's needs | Insights

Specialized vs. generalized agencies – which creative team is right for your brand?

April 2021


  • Jeremy Burrows, CEO
  • James Chutter, Digital Strategist

Whenever your brand hires an outside agency, you want to see the best results from the beginning. For years, large agencies with a generalist's expertise have been the strongest option with a solution for every need. And, better yet, enough project oversight to provide your brand with peace of mind.

As the media landscape fragments, the industry is shifting. Technology allows your message to grow more targeted, which calls into question the effectiveness of mass communication. Consequently, massive conglomerate ad agencies are beginning to fall from favor for many brands. Instead, smaller agencies with a focused domain have grown more appealing by offering an unmatched level of passion and expertise.

In a competitive marketplace, you need to feel confident your brand is getting the latest, most effective approaches toward resolving its problems. Handing your project to a full-service mega-agency may seem like the path of least resistance. But a targeted campaign delivered by a smaller agency with a dedicated skill set may yield stronger results.

Let's look at the pros and cons of each approach to determine which type of partnership is best for your brand.

Generalist agencies require less management from your brand

Think of working with a generalist agency as akin to working with a general contractor on a home renovation. You may not know how many or even what particular skills your project requires. But rather than learning construction, you trust a general contractor to find and manage the right team of specialists.

When you work with a more specialized agency, you may gain a focused team with the comprehensive skillset to offer a deep dive into one aspect of your project. But you may need more than one team of experts to complete the whole campaign, which requires more oversight on your part. When you target a larger agency for your project, they can take that burden from your shoulders. But ultimately, you pay a premium for that service.

The more generalized the agency, the lower the value

Hiring a specialized agency doesn't necessarily translate to a more bargain-priced approach. You're working with a creative team with a high level of expertise in a specific niche, and that carries its own level of expense. But there’s a different level of value in those associated costs.

The larger the agency, the greater the bureaucracy that's involved in creating your work. Every project has a manager, and that manager has a manager. While you’re paying multiple people at the agency to oversee your project and team, you’re likely only receiving deliverables from a more junior team member with many senior.

At a large agency, the senior staff spends a lot of time mentoring new talent through creative projects. Their investment will protect the agency’s brand in the long run, but your project demands a more experienced eye. When you’re counting on an outside agency to deliver creative expertise, you need to make sure that the time and money you're investing isn't going to waste.

Your brand knows what it’s getting with a specialized agency

By contrast, at a specialized agency, your costs go toward a mid- to senior-level veteran who has been evolving their craft for years. As the industry has evolved, senior partners from very large agencies have left to start smaller shops to focus on specific areas. And these specialized firms are finding success because their clients appreciate direct access to the talent working on their project.

Smaller, more specialized agencies allow your brand to focus on specific platforms, such as when working with a digital-focused agency. But you can also be more targeted with your goals, such as working with agencies that specialize in marketing to the entertainment or technology industry.

While a larger agency takes the burden of management off your brand’s plate, you often don’t know the specifics behind how your project is being completed. To continue the home improvement analogy, a general contractor will partner with whomever they need to finish a job. You may be drawn to a large agency for its prestigious reputation, but it could subcontract your work out to a smaller agency.

In cases like these, you again have to evaluate your return on investment. Why pay for the benefits of a large agency if they’re sending your work out to a team of specialists? Instead, you could simply contact a specialist agency in the first place.

Hiring a specialized agency carries a measure of risk

Along with the additional level of management that you gain from hiring a large, generalist agency, you can also feel a sense of security. Though a globally known ad agency with some 100 years of experience may cost a premium, your boss will never question why you opted to work with them, right?

Because of their specialized nature, a smaller agency may lack the name recognition that’s easier to sell to upper management. However, when it comes to expertise in their field and the lack of managerial overhead, you stand to gain a cultural difference in work styles that’s impossible to reproduce at agencies with a more general focus.

Smaller agencies are free to focus on a single craft

No matter which route you pursue for a project, generalized and specialized agencies are equally dedicated to creating the best work for their clients.

However, because of the nature of specialization, a smaller agency can look a little deeper at its area of expertise. A specialized agency has a faster time to market because it has gained a fundamental understanding of a specific industry. By contrast, a generalist agency needs to be prepared to offer clients a wide range of expertise that could suit any brief. In terms of gaining a deep reserve of knowledge in a single industry or medium, a generalist simply can't keep pace.

When you’re working with a team of generalists from a large agency on your project, they understand all the core concepts your brand needs. But as the topic grows more nuanced, they’re likely learning something more specific for the first time.

As a topic gets more complicated, creative specialists are more free to dig deeper and continually push to learn more. When it comes to your brand keeping pace with a fast-moving, increasingly targeted market, one-size-fits-all solutions are proving harder to find. Whatever agency you choose, you need to ensure you've found a team that's every bit as obsessed with finding the right solution to your needs as you are.