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By Jamie Richards
Jamie Richards of adaptive agency Branded plots the history of decoupling and how this has led the industry to a three tier agency structure and examines this three tier approach in a packaging case study from Tesco
Three Tier Agency Structure
We now have a recognised and increasingly used three tier reference in the industry with Strategic Agencies being Tier One, Adaptive Agencies Tier Two and Production Agencies Tier Three.
When did the term “decoupling” first surface in agency and procurement vernacular?
Decades ago, would be the answer – a plausible argument can be put forward that the concept first came into play more than thirty plus years ago, when the explosion of Mac desktop publishing opened up pre-media, and with it, countless opportunities.
Although the concept of decoupling was easy to grasp back then – namely the handing over of design files and brand guidelines to production or repro agencies at a much earlier stage to carry out campaign roll-out – decoupling wasn’t necessarily welcomed with open arms by all; in fact, far from it.
Strategic agencies knew only too well what it meant for them, so when the subject was raised they set about dissuading clients and their respective procurement colleagues, explaining that the concept was flawed on two fronts. Firstly, that it was unwise to hand over their carefully crafted design files and brand guidelines to production and repro agencies who, whilst rather good at shifting production quickly, thus improving speed to market, were sometimes not so adept at creative interpretation.
Secondly, whilst specialist production or repro agency charge-out rates were often significantly cheaper than those from the strategic agency, the amend prices incurred on files that needed to go around again because of any misinterpretation they introduced meant that any financial gain might be lost, as might the speed advantage.
Of course, the other key consideration for the strategic agency was the loss of a considerable amount of production revenue: not good, particularly when clients at the time were looking closely at all other aspects of strategic agency rates.
Tension between Procurement and Marketing
All of this added to tensions between procurement and marketing as, despite procurement wanting the money win, the client (marketing) and the strategic agency would more than often win the day, largely on the brand integrity, creative interpretation and preservation front – a strong argument, and one that was somewhat enhanced if the production or repro agency failed to deliver on its promise of improved costs and speed. Thus, decoupling didn’t always happen, with often brand degradation and false economy being the reasons not to do it.
Recent times however, prompted by market forces, have seen the quiet re-emergence of decoupling and its concept, but this time with a clearly defined solution to the above challenge in the form of a new breed of agency, and with it, a new descriptor – arise, the Adaptive Agency.
The Rise of the Adaptive Agency
The job of the Adaptive Agency is to provide that all important creative interpretation to campaign roll out, whatever the channel, acting as the bridge between the strategic agency, responsible for strategy and design and the production and repro agency, responsible for final artwork, repro and print technical specification. And in doing so, leaving strategic agencies and production agencies to do what they do best.
How does the Adaptive Agency model work in practice? We find that a useful way to think of the work of an Adaptive Agency is that we apply a lens – or dual lenses, focusing on both creative (upstream) and production (downstream) needs and wants.
As well as acting as brand guardian, and overseeing brand integrity according to Tier 1 guidelines throughout this process, we ensure that creative intentions and production realities meet harmoniously and consistently, delivering the optimum result for the client, whatever the media or format required. If applied correctly, what the Adaptive Agency provides the production and repro agency will make their lives much easier. This adaptive process also includes art direction and photography, ensuring a consistent approach to imagery, within the intended Tier 1 vision.
Whilst an Adaptive Agency and its capabilities are channel-agnostic, packaging is one vertical that has quickly embraced the concept, with most large retailers and brands now having Adaptive Agencies on their roster. One such retailer is Tesco, which has been working with Adaptive Agencies for around three years.
Caroline Kelly, head of packaging design at Tesco, explains: “We’d been collaborating with our lead agency partners on needing a more streamlined, smarter solution in advance of us working via a new three tier agency approach to creative delivery for our packaging”.
“Of course” continues Kelly “with any change can come risk, but the comprehensive trials we carried out with two proactive partners who actually refined their adaptive entities at the time were hugely successful and more than proved the model”.
But Kelly concludes “Our ranges sometimes have hundreds of SKU’s, often involving multi colour, multi process print across various substrates all needing to be visually aligned to the brand and be fully colour correct. For any Adaptive Agency, an acute understanding of design intent and what can technically be printed regardless of process, is key”.
At Branded, to make sure that we are able to deliver the right level of service to Tesco, we have a sizable team based onsite at the clients headquarters, part of which acts as a natural extension to Tesco’s in-house design team.
These adaptive experts have a multi-faceted role to play. Whilst it could fundamentally be summed up as project management, our team’s duties include problem-solving and brainstorming, brand guardianship, art direction support when required, collating assets, liaising and ensuring smooth communication between project stakeholders, and driving projects forward to make sure that deadlines are successfully met.
A key factor in the success of our model, is undoubtedly the wider agency collaboration we are able to provide within Branded, which when combined with adaptive, can deliver even greater efficiency and improved speed to market. There is a fine balance between creative interpretation and delivery at speed, and based on our client’s feedback, it’s evident to us that we have achieved that balance.
And as a final footnote on decoupling, we believe that having gained approval from both procurement and marketing the Adaptive Agency is here to stay.
About the author
Jamie Richards is a Director at Branded