Succeeding in the Agency Space – Learn from the Prada's, Gucci's, and Versace's of the World

By Tinuiti Team

For digital marketing agencies to sustain and grow, it would behoove them to take note of what has happened for years on end in the fashion world. Most specifically, the ability for brands like Prada, Gucci, and Versace to stay relevant to consumers. One may say it’s due to the “creative acumen” but I believe it’s bigger than just that. These household brands have stayed relevant because of their uncanny ability to adapt and willingness to take the outdated and make it “fresh and relevant” again. Fashion trends, after all, are just recycled decade after decade. From “boyfriend jeans” to those “jelly sandals” that came and hopefully have gone now, the labels that have been able to stand the test of time have combined two ideologies together that agencies should all take note of:

  1. Set he Standard At The Core: they created staple, trademark items – pieces that at the core define whom they are.
  2. Recycle: perhaps more importantly, in conjunction with delivering those staple items, they have all been willing to go back and repurpose/reuse “outdated” trends making them relevant and “in-fashion” again.

Digital shops need to adopt this same mentality in order to survive in this increasingly competitive landscape. When we first got our start one of our strongest “value-adds” was how we drew a line in the sand. We made it clear that we were a specialty shop: a boutique SEM agency with an experts-only approach fully investing ourselves in all things Paid Search. This experts-only mentality permeated throughout the digital marketing landscape as evident by a May 2011 AdAge calling the “need for one-stop shops” a MYTH for brands. Even our name “Elite SEM” triumphed this thinking as did our business practices – we would refer our own clients to other shops in the space that had their own specialty practice as well. And for a while this practice paid off ten-fold. Clients LOVED this notion – they wanted that experts’ touch and focus as the space, 3 to 4 years ago, was a lot less complex and as a result clients had no problem coordinating with 3 specialty shops to tackle their business needs.

In 2012, we began to notice a dramatic shift in this thinking. More clients began to reach out to us about needs outside of our principal practice of Paid Search. Requests started to come in about Facebook advertising, mobile app marketing, etc. Not too shocking, these requests came around a time of massive change within the digital marketing space. From the SEO realm exploding with updates (Not Provided, Penguin, Panda, insert random animal name here), to the rise of Google Shopping, to Facebook’s Success in DR advertising, to Programmatic Media buying (2015 biggest buzz word) – clients soon went from dealing with 2-3 partners to as many as 8 to 10 different vendors all specializing in a specific niche for that advertiser.

You can only imagine how cumbersome and unproductive that can be and soon clients began facing a number of challenges – of which three stood out to us!

  1. Wasted Time: clients ended up spending their entire workday on the phone/email playing middleman between respective vendors. Hours were lost on calls between partners, many of which probably represented something similar to this video.
  2. United Goals: perhaps the biggest issue was the lack of alignment. Everyone says they have the client’s best interest in mind, but one needs to be realistic with oneself. The sad reality is each partner has their own set agenda – how to make their specific piece stand out, thus ensuring increased/sustained engagement with the client. As a result the consumer story soon became lost in translation as vendors battled with each other for a larger slice of their mutual client’s budget as opposed to helping the client understand all the different factors that led to that conversion.
  3. Knowledge Depth: does it make sense to have a wide array of knowledge with little depth or great depth but limited reach? The answer should certainly not be the former in our eyes but unfortunately this is the route many partners began to take, which in return hurt the client. False promises of “expertise” became common and to the savvier brands begun leaving clients jaded by the agency experience.

Thus begins the resurrection of an old principal that for a few years was pushed to the wayside: the need to consolidate services, or for some, build digital teams in-house only. As a study conducted by Woodside Capital Partners last year suggested, many companies (e.g.,,, and even newer shops like Thumbtack) are now turning away from agencies, despite the cost savings, instead building their own in-house ad tech teams. Those that continue to leverage agencies are also in consolidation mode as well – from Kraft Foods, Bose, and Honda cutting down the number of agencies they leverage, to the growing number of RFPs we encounter asking not just search questions but about our SEO, Display, Social, Analytics, and mobile capabilities as well.

As we watched this trend develop, we realized immediately that like Prada and Versace, in order for Elite SEM to continue its strong success we needed to take a page of out of how things were done in the past while maintaining what made Elite SEM special to clients. We had to become our client’s one-stop digital shop while still maintaining our experts-only mentality and approach.

Accomplishing this has not been an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination, and I would say it’s still a work in progress. After all, our business was built by our strong reputation in this space as experts and we needed to make sure this philosophy permeated within each new tactic we took on. In addition to being able to provide our services, we needed to make sure we jumped in with both feet as opposed to testing the waters.

Hiring ahead, finding the right talent and leaders to spearhead our push outside of search, and ensuring their philosophy aligns with Elite’s Core Values has been critical to this movement. But that’s just the tip of what needs to be done – education, both internal and external, will prove to be the make or break point for Elite.

With this thinking in mind, Elite SEM has spent the past 3 years evolving from a one-stop specialty shop to a full-fledged digital marketing agency with expertise in two primary principles: Paid Media + Earned Media. Both principles rely on an array of marketing tactics – including Paid Social, SEO, CRO, LP and SEM. When combined together and owned by one agency, these principles will ultimately result in stronger success at creating a holistic marketing approach with aligned goals for the client themselves. Patience and time will tell if our shift in thinking will pay dividends long term, but our hopes are that by taking a page from these iconic fashion houses, Elite SEM has set itself to be a player both for the short & long term.

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