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A few Fridays ago I was a guest on a panel hosted by The Internationalist Magazine put on for their “Media Matters Chicago Think Tank” series. The conversation ranged from what it means to be omni-channel in a socially transparent media world to how big data and the global economy are changing the marketing landscape.

At one point the talk settled on the topic of the competitive, increasingly specialized, fragmented agency marketplace, which is constantly expanding with ultra-niche upstart stars orbiting legacy giant networks.

A few of the panelists noted that the creative and media sides split off at the most inopportune moment — just when both these expertise areas needed to be working closely together — and that the challenges of competing for clients’ mind- and budget-share are hurting creative agencies.

The panelists with significant experience as clients chimed in to note that the situation isn’t a walk in the park for them, either. From the brand owner’s perspective, they wish they could rely on full-service shops to provide the wide-ranging expertise needed to execute increasingly complex interactive campaigns spanning all digital, social, mobile, SEO/SEM and traditional media.

Instead, several clients made an explicit point that they feel like they need to be a ringleader — herding here, pushing there — in order to get the most out of each individual expert vendor needed to pull off their integrated marketing campaigns.

As CMOs, it is our duty to facilitate collaboration between our main agencies and our specialty providers, but this needs to be a two way street where both clients and agencies each have considerable responsibilities to the other.

For clients: Know what you want.

It’s easy to be down on your lead agency for not doing this or initiating that, but have you provided a concise vision for your marketing goals? The kind that make it easy for your agency to understand what specialties and expertise they need to seek out, procure and on-board on your behalf? And will you be rewarding them for that leadership or complaining about ballooning fees and extended timelines?

No one agency is capable of doing it all but you need to be able to clearly reward collaboration when specialist partners are brought into the mix – ensuring that all agencies check their ego at the door and look out for the best interests of the client.

Think this one through carefully before deciding your current agency just doesn’t do enough to keep you on the cutting edge of what you need to succeed. And remember it when they seek out specialized skills in areas typically outside the realm of their core competencies.

For agencies: Forget “competitors,” think in terms of “strategic alliances.”

The best advice I’ve seen on this topic was delivered to agency heads by John Montgomery, Chief Operations Officer of GroupM Interaction North America, during his keynote address at the iMedia Agency Summit in early December.

“Partnerships in our data-driven tech world are critical, and you can’t survive without it,” Montgomery said.

He went on to note, according to iMedia Connection associate editor Jennifer Marlo, that there is something in the “agency DNA” that compels agencies to want to do everything in-house. “Montgomery conceded that the do-it-yourself businesses model worked when he began his agency career 30 years ago, but that the explosion of technology has made it virtually impossible for today’s agencies to fly solo.”

Few CMOs expect their lead agency to know it all — we’re quite aware that it “all” changes with alarming speed — but we do want to believe that our agencies are working closely with other partners in pursuit of our brand’s best interests.

The proliferation of new technologies and platforms makes it almost impossible for any one agency to understand the landscape.

Particularly in the advanced analytics and technology platform space, few agencies will have the breadth and depth required to really provide thought leadership in the areas of data strategy, architecture and technical deployments.

In fact, being able to manage with and alongside a broad roster of best in breed partners will continue to be the most critical skill for both CMOs and agency leadership.