Playing the field

Many brands rely on through-the-line agencies to conduct field marketing exercises, but there is an alternative: specialist agencies. They have much time and creativity to offer, says Steve Hemsley

The definition of flexibility is being able to bend easily without breaking, and the specialist field marketing companies claim their ability to mould themselves to fit exactly their clients’ needs gives them the edge.

Despite the proliferation of integrated through-the-line agencies, many specialists have never been in a stronger position, as clients require agencies to have a deep understanding of their brands and demonstrate quick-thinking creativity rather than simply an ability to implement a brief. With the economic slowdown and persistent rumours that more marketing spend will be driven below the line, clients need to know they can rely on daily, director-level involvement from their agency should they need it.

Most of the specialists thriving at the moment will have been tempted by merger and acquisition approaches in the past ten years and, for those that have resisted, the current market situation is something they can exploit.


“Specialist agencies have grown stronger because clients want their agency to talk to them about the objectives for the brand. This means specialists tend to take a longer-term approach to their clients’ field marketing needs,” says Gail Tunesi, managing director of specialist PMI, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

PMI has around 30 clients including News International, Coca-Cola, BMG, One 2 One and video distributor Universal, for which it ensures that retailers erect what can be crucial merchandising point-of-sale material on the day a major video and DVD title is released.

In May, PMI promoted four key titles, including the hit movie Billy Elliott, over four consecutive weeks. Its team of 150 field marketers visited about 98 per cent of stockists every Monday morning. They gathered compliance information using a telephone hotline in the afternoon and sent Universal a data report via-mail the next day.

Universal national accounts manager Nikki Edgson says the company requires live data as soon as possible and that the logistics involved mean this can usually only be delivered by a specialist agency. “PMI carries out all our tactical campaigns and, because it is specialist and small enough, it can meet our needs at very short notice. Larger agencies can be too rigid,” she says.

Clients that have initial concerns about using a specialist after years working with a larger agency will usually test the water by allocating the agency a one-off project with a relatively small budget.

Red Agency managing director David Smith says clients are faced with a stark choice: play it safe with a large, through-the-line agency or take a chance with a specialist. “Clients must ask themselves what they are actually buying. The answer must be the expertise needed to conduct and audit field marketing services that meet their aims and objectives – not the agency’s,” he says.

Two men who worked within a big group but preferred the specialist sector are David Foster and Grant Finney, who set up specialist agency Raisley in 1999. They had previously worked for The Really Big Promotions Company, which was integrated into IPG in 1995 and sold to the marketing giant in 1997.

Foster argues that budgets are increasing as more clients realise the creative benefits of using a specialist. “We can perform better for less. This is because we are a tight-knit team and have a personal relationship with our clients, rather than seeing them just as a source of revenue that allows us to meet our own business targets” he says.

One client that has steadily increased its spend with Raisley is tea company Twinings. Initially the agency was approached to implement a sampling exercise, but the brand needed advice on how to solve the complex issue of ensuring the temperature and the quality of the water was correct to ensure the perfect cuppa. The agency devised a unit that fitted inside the merchandising stand, and cleaned and heated the water to the exact temperature. The relationship with the client has grown to cover further Twinings’ brands. Raisley recently ran a Twinings Iced Tea sampling campaign using a bright and open stand designed to convey the same mood as the promotional images being used in a poster campaign running alongside the promotion.

Value for money

Twinings UK marketing manager Elizabeth Edwards says the brand employs specialists for every marketing discipline. “This approach means the company gets exactly what it pays for. Integrated agencies promote the one-stop shop, but they are not always as strong in each area as the specialists,” she says.

“The downside is that, as a client marketing team, we must work hard to ensure all the specialist agencies work together and convey exactly the same brand message, whereas with a large agency we would brief just one account manager.”

Specialist agencies must continue to remind clients of their flexibility and creativity if they are to build on their reputation. But Headcount Field Marketing managing director Mike Garnham believes few marketers really understand the creative possibilities of field marketing.

His company recently distributed shampoo samples as part of a through-the-line campaign, an activity that has traditionally produced at least 50 per cent wastage because samples are given to the wrong people or to consumers who take them home and never use them. Headcount devised a campaign to use hair salons – 70,000 heads were washed over a three-day period and the product was sold on the premises to make the exercise partly self-funding.

Potential ignorance

“This is one of the ways in which targeting has developed, yet few personnel in integrated agencies seem to have any idea about the potential of field marketing, which is an increasingly complex and specialist subject,” says Garnham.

There is a view that the specialists are winning extra contracts largely because clients do not consider field marketing a significant element in the marketing mix. Those pushing this theory claim responsibility for commissioning field marketing campaigns is often left to junior members within the client’s marketing team, who will prefer to build a personal relationship with a smaller agency rather than deal with a large and possibly anonymous company.

Tony Bond senior consultant at Results Business Consulting, which advises a variety of marketing agencies on how to improve their business performance, says using a specialist means clients can control the relationship for a relatively low budget.

“Most clients just want to ensure that the field marketing exercises get done, so the specialists are in a strong position because this is all they do. Yet there is still pressure on brands that have relationships with the large agencies to push the one-stop idea in house. There might also be contractual reasons as to why they have to use an integrated agency’s field marketing department,” he says.

He adds that specialist agencies are performing well because face-to-face marketing is “size-neutral but skill-particular”, and smaller businesses can retain staff and spread training costs over a longer period to be more cost effective. His one criticism is that the specialists have yet to convince clients that, with the growth in online activity, their skills stretch further than offering purely face-to-face services.

Should the UK economy continue to dip, the specialists are confident they can survive. They believe the smaller budgets allocated to their agencies and the personal relationships built up with brands, often over many years, will persuade clients to look elsewhere to save money. “If a brand is looking to save money it might be easier for the brand manager to cut ten per cent or 20 per cent off a large budget allocated to an integrated through-the-line group rather than cut spend to a specialist,” says Bond.

An ability to make things happen quickly remains a key selling point for the specialists. Retail clients looking to differentiate themselves from their rivals on more than price are also turning to field marketing to bring traditional point of sale to life.

REL Field Marketing has a &£4.5m contract with Waitrose to undertake all its in-store demonstrations. Chief executive Pat Rooney says that grocery chains in particular see demonstrations as an important added-value exercise.

“REL can act quickly because it has three owner-managers who make things happen. Demonstrations, such as distributing cheese or wine, work well in grocery stores because they build on the relationship with the customer, who feels the store is giving them something back. All our staff receive minimum health and hygiene training and we provide detailed tasting notes,” adds Rooney.

Fighting back

Understandably, the multi-discipline agencies reject much of the criticism accusing them of inflexibility and lacking creativity. CPM managing director Tom Preece says that as an integrated business it can have contact with a brand’s consumers through whatever marketing channel a client wants to use.

“This is how we can be flexible. We will talk to clients about their business objectives and how best to reach their consumers. We are skilled in helping them to retain their customers and meet all their needs,” he says. Preece says he is aware of clients’ concerns about the economic slowdown and admits the company’s field marketing arm is finding it tougher than a year ago. “Much of the concern being shown by clients is being driven by the US multinationals that have seen what has happened across the Atlantic and are bringing that scepticism and concern to Europe,” he says.

One regional agency claiming it has achieved the ideal balance between an integrated and specialist agency is Bristol-based TigerRed. It is an integrated through-the-line business but promotes what it calls “specialist centres of excellence” for different disciplines including field marketing, sales promotion and direct marketing.

“There are two reasons we went down this route. First we are fighting a different fight than agencies operating in the competitive London market, and second there are a lot of talented people in this area,” says director Alison McDougall. “We have specialist field marketers working in house and a roadshow crew of about 20, which means we can offer clients the same service they would get from a specialist agency.” One client that employs TigerRed for field marketing only is Honda, which uses the company for all its event management.

The question clients must ask themselves is not whether a field marketing agency is a specialist, but whether the agency can deliver results. Faced with time and budget pressures they not only demand creativity from their agency but increasingly expect them to bend over backwards to help achieve a brand’s long-term goals.

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