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‘It’s like the boyfriend who never commits’: Why serial projects are on the rise at agencies

In the name of efficiency, companies have reduced agency-of-record assignments in favor of project-based work in recent years. But the pendulum is swinging back somewhat. The result: An arrangement that lands somewhere in the middle, known as “serial project assignments.”

This arrangement allows brands to hire agencies for repeated projects. Agencies have some idea of how long they may be working for a brand and how many projects they may be assigned without brands having to shell out for an AOR retainer fee. The arrangement can be informal, or formalized with a contract that plans out projects, but leaves billing and scope of the projects as yet to be determined. The trend has started to catch on with midsized brands over the past six to 12 months, according to the 4A’s svp of agency management services Matt Kasindorf, adding that creative agencies are the most likely to see this arrangement.

The arrangement allows brands to have consistency by continually working with certain agencies without having to pay AOR retainer fees — essentially getting the best of both the AOR and project-based work assignments. Agencies, meanwhile, have some sense of stability in terms of expected work coming in but it’s murkier when it comes to financial arrangements and staffing, as agencies and brands in the serial project arrangement often haven’t scoped out the work as meticulously as they do with an AOR relationship and, as Digiday previously reported, not doing so early can become a problem later.

The arrangement is another example of the ever-changing nature of the agency-client relationship, according to agency executives and industry experts, who believe that it will become more popular this year as brands don’t want to make long-term commitments with agencies.

“The ongoing trend is to do more with less and be faster, smarter and less expensive,” said Lisa Colantuono, president of search consultancy AAR Partners, who sees serial projects as a side effect of in-house agencies needing help from outside firms. “They’re not set up to be 100 percent self-sustaining as an agency. As more clients do more work in-house they will need more help from the outside.”

Serial projects may be one aspect of the shift toward a more hybrid model between in-housing and AOR, which will likely be more popular in 2020, as Digiday previously reported. The arrangement, like anything, has its pros and cons for agencies and clients. Agencies say the arrangement makes it less likely for brands to get the best work as it’s harder to keep top-tier talent on staff for short-term assignments.

“On the plus side, it’s good for an agency because they know they’ve got a continuous stream of work,” said Kasindorf. “But it’s harder to make financial projections, staffing becomes a little more challenging and [in some cases] there’s no guarantee in terms of on-going monthly work. It’s a way for clients and agencies to establish a solid ongoing relationship but it’s not perfect.”

“It’s like the boyfriend who never commits,” said a creative director at an independent creative agency that has had serial project relationships. “We keep going on dates. You come back to my family’s house for Thanksgiving, we’re going on vacation but never locks it in and says, ‘You’re the one.’”

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