What agency is right for you? Breaking down the major types of ad agencies

If you’re just starting out in advertising, it might be confusing to understand what all these different agency types do. I mean, they all produce ads in some form right? But what makes one agency a digital shop and another an integrated one? What’s it mean to be an above the line agency? Understanding the variety of agency terminology early helps you better focus on the type of places and the type of work you want to do. So in this article, I’m going to break down some of the most common terms. Let’s go!

Digital Agency

A digital agency is one that focuses on making things in the digital space (shocker!). This can be everything from websites to apps to social media posts. Digital agencies can have a pretty broad focus. Some do more communications work, building ad campaigns that live primarily on the web and/or social media. Some do less campaign work and focus on creating digital products, developing things like apps, chatbots and even physical objects that use technology. Of course some of the bigger ones do a little bit of both.

With digital being such a buzz word, it’s probably one of the most broad terms you’ll hear used.  The best way to tell what exactly makes any ‘digital agency’ tick is to look at their philosophy and their work.

Traditional Agency

Traditional agencies are what you probably think of when you think advertising. Far from being the set of Mad Men, traditional agencies can be incredibly modern. The name just means their primary focus is on the traditional media used in advertising – print, out of home and television to name a few. Like the broadness of ‘digital advertising,’ traditional is another really broad term. 

Generally speaking, traditional agencies focus on campaign work and communications. Many traditional agencies have started to incorporate digital into their repertoire. It’s hard to ignore the internet this days, ya know? Which brings me to the next term… 

Integrated Agency

More and more traditional agencies are becoming integrated, meaning they blend the internet and the traditional media into a unified campaign. If you’re doing campaign work, I really can’t see any better way to do it, since today’s consumer spends way more of their time in front of a computer screen than they do the places traditional advertising plays. 

Integrated agencies tend to come up with a campaign. Oftentimes the way an integrated campaign works is by using traditional media (tv, print, posters, etc.) to push people to digital experiences. Integrated work can be a lot of fun, but the digital side doesn’t always have the same level of complexity as the type of things a digital agency might do. Why’s that? Simply because it’s all focused around a campaign that’ll only live for a finite period of time. Digital agencies, on the other hand, are typically brought in to do work like full on web redesigns or apps that require much larger investments.

Traditional and Integrated agencies are usually above the line agencies

Many traditional agencies are also a brand’s above the line agencies. This means they typically get to come up with the big. brand-wide campaign ideas and messaging. In other words, they’re the big fish that all the other agencies that work with that brand have to follow. Most big brands will have multiple agencies they work with, including traditional and digital agencies. The above the line shop gets to come up with the stuff that trickles down to the smaller partners. Think of it this way: an above the line agency will determine the seasonal campaign that goes across all of a brands lines of business. The smaller agency partners will then interpret that campaign for their medium (digital v traditional) for their part of the business.

A few other terms worth knowing:

Agency of Record: Sometimes simply said as AOR or Digital AOR, an agency of record means you’re the lead and primary agency working with that client. Your agency is responsible for all the advertising (or digital) services that client might require.

Production Agency: It’s like an ad agency, but focused more on making things and less on coming up with the big idea. Production agencies are typically given a problem with a specific solution (ie: we want to build an app) to execute. Many agencies will outsource work they can’t do because it requires a lot of development or specific skills to production companies.

Experiential Agency: Another type of agency is one that focuses on doing experiences. They’re becoming more and more common these days. Experiences are defined as real-world (or online) events that people can participate in.

Branding Agency: Branding is the art of defining a brand. Agencies that specifically focus on branding help brands create rules for their visual guidelines and their tone. They help with things like color palette, logos and tone of voice.


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