Digital Marketing, Integrated Marketing and Media

The Rise of the T-Shaped Agency Model

Daniel Lemin 150x150 The Rise of the T Shaped Agency Modelbadge tools tactics The Rise of the T Shaped Agency ModelDaniel Lemin is Strategy & Analytics Lead at Convince & Convert. He also runs the consulting firm Social Studio where he provides analytics, PR and integrated marketing strategy to his clients.

Agency owners, take note: your traditional team structure – the one that divides your agency into “digital”, “account management” and “creative,” among others – may be restraining capacity to innovate and expand your client capabilities.

We work with a lot of agencies and have come to recognize the challenges that leaders are facing in today’s hyper-competitive market. There are smaller agencies that have specialized knowledge in one content area or social technology. There are larger agencies that have built labyrinthine digital teams with varying capabilities, making it hard to assess one agency’s true stripes over another. It’s mind-boggling how much has changed in the agency business in the last 5-10 years and we know how hard it is compete. There are no easy solutions to any of the business challenges and it can feel like you throw good money after bad by chasing new technologies as a service offering.

What is the T-Shaped Agency?

We have been talking this year about a concept – borrowed from the early years of digital agency business models – we call the T-Shaped Agency. This is a framework for agency owners and leaders to consider as they look to invest in staff education on new technologies, package that expertise into concise service offerings that clients will understand and don’t feel filled with hype and jargon, and – get this – actually deliver on the work in a profitable and consistent manner.

How Does the T-Shaped Agency Work?

tshaped1 1024x765 The Rise of the T Shaped Agency Model

T-Shaped Agency Architecture

The T-Shaped Agency concept is effective when there is recognition by agency owners that their traditional model of building, pricing and delivering a service to clients is misaligned with the need for rapid and articulate innovation in their client work. Let me build a metaphor for you to frame this concept.

Think of an agency as a software package, like Microsoft Office. Clients like to purchase an Office Suite; they know they will need word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software and possibly some other add-ons that make a packaged suite very enticing as a model. It’s fairly expensive to purchase all of this software and not every employee will want or need it, but it provides an easy solution for work productivity. Over time, the need for new features in that software changes and, slowly, the software manufacturer pushes out updates to the software which requires installation and deployment by IT teams and certainly does not put critical new features in the hands of employees quickly. It’s a slow model that does not evolve quickly.

Contrast that with newer open-source web-based software services like OpenOffice. These platforms – also available as a software suite, similar to Microsoft Office – provide immediate access to new features and fast deployment of updates without a lengthy installation process. Because it’s based on open-source software, it can take advantage of a community of knowledge – some of which may be very specialized – and new features can emerge rapidly that will be useful to a large number of its customers. This is similar to the T-Shaped Agency model that we’re describing here.

Agencies are filled with vast amounts of intelligence, and while employees may have line-item duties for specific skills – like creative, web development, account management – they may also have a knowledge of a specific technology that no other employee can match. Perhaps they are a weekend warrior on HTML5 development, or a passionate video producer looking for an outlet for their creative talents. The point is these skills exist within an agency and it’s difficult to put a description on them as a service offering; to say you have a video SEO product or a WordPress guru is a bit too specific for most agency engagements. But, clients crave those skills. So you have to adapt your ability to identify who those content experts are and allow them some lateral freedom to put their skills to use. Employees love it because they feel that they’re being valued for the unique insights they have about a specific topic. Clients love it because they feel the agency “gets it” and is able to deliver consistent innovative ideas and actually get them done. Of course, many scenarios will require an agency to look beyond its own walls for specific expertise, but having an internal champion of that technology, platform or concept will still be a valuable asset.

Deploying the T-Shaped Structure

How do you go about deploying this structure? It does not have to be a watershed moment. You can start informally surveying employees and asking them what areas interest them. For some, providing a small time or training allowance to bolster their existing knowledge of a topic will be a great incentive. For others, just the chance to show off their talent and contribute to the agency’s success is enough. You can expand the concept by crafting incentives for participation and, slowly, you’ll begin to see a natural evolution in how your teams are thinking about innovation for their clients. Clients will begin to notice too, and they’ll begin to see that your agency is evolving out of the Microsoft Office mindset and adapting an open approach to innovation.

Are you using the T-Shaped Agency structure in your business?

  • http://www.lciweb.com blawrimore

    This is intriguing but hard to understand. And I am a marketing consultant who has studies organization design in depth. Please explain how this range of capabilities is communicated to the client, online or offline, so that the client can say, “Aha – I’ll have some of this” etc. I can see how this would be cool for staff members, but I want the client’s or prospect’s perspective. Thanks.

    • ChrisQueso

       @blawrimore I honestly believe we as business owners shouldn’t have to place concepts like these onto the minds of the clients and prospects. They have enough to think about and at the end of the day they need help and solutions. It’s our job (the agency) to deploy an internal structure like this (or whatever works for you and your team) and for us to know how our structure can help us serve the various needs of our clients. While it’s cool for guys like us to read this post and get great ideas on how to organize our teams… I wouldn’t get caught up in trying to explain a concept like this to clients and prospects. From their perspective we just need to concentrate figuring out their needs and providing excellent service.

    • http://2feetfromfreedom.co.uk/ Ben Johnston

       @blawrimore The way I’ve traditionally done it is not to offer these extra services outright as bolt-ons or “lower-level” services, but you usually find that through working with clients for a while and building a relationship that they will at some point say “I want to get this done, do you know anyone?” That’s when the “Yeah, we’ve got a guy/ girl here that can help you out with that” comes in. The team member gets to do something else (usually at home in my case) and get some overtime in their pocket, the agency makes some more off the back of it and the client starts viewing you as the first port of call.

    • ChrisQueso

      @blawrimore
      We as business owners shouldn’t have to place concepts like these onto the minds of the clients and prospects. They have enough to think about and at the end of the day they need help and solutions. It’s our job (the agency) to deploy an internal structure like this (or whatever works for you and your team) and for us to know how our structure can help us serve the various needs of our clients. While it’s cool for guys like us to read this post and get great ideas on how to organize our teams… I wouldn’t get caught up in trying to explain a concept like this to clients and prospects. From their perspective we just need to concentrate figuring out their needs and providing excellent service.

  • http://www.lciweb.com blawrimore

    Thanks for the answers folks. I’m satisfied. 
    Buck

  • option8films

    While I can appreciate the insight presented here, I do not believe that this model would be feasible to maintain at scale. I believe that this is best suited for a startup model rather than a large, existing agency. Playing to people’s strengths is a great way to cultivate fidelity to the agency and deeply engage your staff. But to organize in this manner as you grow and expand does not appear feasible. Organizing by capability has always made the most sense because it is scalable. You create areas of excellence and zones of expertise by playing to the team members strengths and encouraging organic professional growth via curiosity and experimentation. Hire the best, most talented team you can get and let them group together, foster a collegial environment and let them inspire each other as they share their own interests and strengths. Always seek to have weaker team members work with colleagues who are better than they are as this will strengthen them and ramp up their learning curve. Anyway, just a few of my thoughts on this matter.

  • MichaelDurwin

    Imagine this scenario:
    You generally get a bunch of client that want Flash websites. You’ve staffed to have a certain number of Flash specialists. All of a sudden technology is changing and you’re company is tasked with creating HTML websites. What do you do? Well, you fire most of your Flash specialists and start hiring HTML5 specialists. 
    If, on the other hand, you hired folks that were generalists, those who thing in more holistic ways and adapt easily to new technology, culture, and user trends, you have a team creating a bunch of Flash websites who are able to pretty easily ramp up for HTML5 projects.
     
    The hire/fire scenario that agencies are built on is bad for morale, it is bad for the bottom line (man hours in finding and interviewing new candidates, training them on your process, paying unemployment), bad for the industry, and bad for your company: Adobe and Apple made nice and figured out a way to make Flash work for smart phones, now you’re getting a bunch of requests for Flash again. Oops, you fired all of those Flash guys who either changed careers, are working for someone else, or wouldn’t work for you again (not that you’d rehire them, no one rehires layoff) and the ones that haven’t worked for you heard you reguarly lay off Flash people.
     
     

  • MichaelDurwin

    Unfortunately even agencies who say they understand this don’t.

  • KerrySOMalley

    I know there’s a place for large, traditional agencies as well as agencies that specialize in particular skill sets; but how about the “open source” agency?  That’s what my company has been for the past 4 years, and just as open source software provides a faster, more customized solution, so does the open source or virtual agency model.  We may never land the Fortune 500 accounts (and actually don’t try to) but we stay consistently busy and if a client needs a skill that’s not currently part of our open source team, we find it – fast.

  • http://thecontentcocktail.com/ C_Pappas

    I interviewed with an agency once and they told me I was a t-shaped person. I had no idea what that meant so i asked. The answer was a compliment. I was very broad when it came to my knowledge of marketing in a general sense but at the same time I was very refined in one area – hence the t shape. I can see this being beneficial to agencies, not so in companies provided solutions. If you start being all things to all people, you solutions start to dilute and you end up being not so good at everything.

  • Malik Brown

    It’s certainly an idea that’s been catching on. I’ve seen more articles all over the place, especially in regards to how China is making huge strides in forming their companies around the t-shaped model.Good article here: http://blog.cartondonofriopartners.com/the-t-shaped-revolution/

  • Malik Brown

    It’s certainly an idea that’s been catching on. I’ve seen more articles all over the place, especially in regards to how China is making huge strides in forming their companies around the t-shaped model.Good article here: http://blog.cartondonofriopartners.com/the-t-shaped-revolution/

  • Corinne Sklar

    this doesn’t talk about bill rates, ect not very earth shattering concert here. Not sure how this really is moving the needle.