Sometimes agencies need an agency — rather, a media execution partner — to get the job done

You know the day-to-day workings of media agencies aren’t exactly easy when there’s actually a need in the market for agencies that can support those agencies. That’s why Pathlabs exists — to offer its generalist services to agencies (creative or media) as a “media execution partner” when they need the help. Consider it the ronin of the agency world — a sword for hire when in-house strength or know-how isn’t enough.

Pathlabs originally started eight years ago as a software-as-a-service company called Lumenad that developed market intelligence dashboards for agencies and brands but also handled media planning and buying needs for clients. It evolved three or so years ago when it was clear the latter part of the business was growing faster, explained Mario Schulzke, Pathlabs’ COO. That’s when the company minted the term media execution partner.

Today, Pathlabs has worked with more than 50 agencies — a blend of mid-sized media agencies that don’t have the benefit of holding-company assists as well as creative agencies that need a helping hand with the media side of a campaign. Schulzke explained that as a media execution partner, it can offer a quiver of services, including manpower, access to technology, media planning/optimization/execution and digital expertise, among other consultative services.

Based out of Missoula, Montana, the privately held company chose to work with agencies only rather than working with brands as well for the sake of conflict avoidance.

“You can either serve brands and/or you can serve agencies, but you get in really muddy waters when you do both,” said Schulzke, who has years of experience on the agency and marketing sides of the business. “If I’m an agency, I don’t want to work with a with a company that might pitch my clients directly. We don’t want to be that threat. We’re only going to focus on media execution.”

Cortland Fondon, Pathlabs’ chief services officer, said the complexity of technology has created an appetite among those mid-sized agencies to seek out a solution that doesn’t require them to build it out themselves.

“What we’re seeing with media technology today is WYSIWYG — it’s the easy entry,” said Fondon. “You just walk right into this platform, there’s nothing to worry about, you don’t have to go through this intensive training — it’s a black box. … We’ve seen this play out before coming from our SaaS background. Technology’s great, but at the end of the day, you still have to have the people that know how to utilize those technologies and connect the pieces together to really make it work.”

Cayenne Creative, a creative agency out of Birmingham, Alabama, ended up tripling its clients’ media spend when it took on an eight-person media execution partner team from Pathlabs.

“One of our clients who had been most hesitant about Pathlabs became so impressed with them that they’ve now tripled their media investment,” said Sam Burn, the agency’s strategy principal. “Other clients who were not buying media through us began doing so as well, saying that the sophistication Pathlabs brought to the relationship was exactly what they were looking for. The things we’re doing now are much more advanced, much more effective. The measurement, the analysis, the optimization that’s going on is far superior to what it was.”

And it’s apparently working for Pathlabs, which has enjoyed a three-year growth rate of 160% since starting up, said Schulzke. The shop gets paid for the most part through managed services contracts with the agencies it helps, added Fondon.

Pathlabs makes good use of its proximity to the University of Montana in Missoula, where Schulzke teaches marketing classes. Nearly half the company’s 100 employees are graduates — including CEO Will Lapointe, who was a student of Schulzke, then hired him when Lapointe got the CEO gig. Several staff started as interns and have become full-timers.

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