Laughing time is almost over for the agency as we know it

two sides of sir martin sorrell

In two minds about the future of advertising and marketing

Sir Martin Sorrel himself admits if he was starting out again he wouldn’t build the kind of mega agency he runs today. He is busy looking towards China, digital and customer insight to maintain momentum while wondering, like the rest of us, is there a better way? Given his experience and connections, if Sir Martin is pondering the future, perhaps everyone working or planning to work in the classic agency environment should be updating the old CV.

While Sir martin talks about sustaining exponential revenue growth through development in emerging markets, digital platforms and research, clients are challenging the need for an agency at all. In an excellent Campaign article (Do Clients need agency Content Teams?) the consensus was that agencies are simply too slow to respond in the moment. (Something I have been debating for a number of years with directors from every sector of marketing during countless IDM lectures.)

Agencies jump on the content bandwagon

Agencies are responding by introducing content teams, but clients are wondering if this is just another agency attempt at cashing in on the latest cash-cow concept. Clients are wondering if they should pull the whole content-generating machinery in-house. The debate that follows revolves around two key issues. Can agencies respond in real-time? Is  in-house the road to creative perdition?

As I have said before, I think the answer is an amalgam of both. Agencies need to focus on Brand Activation content and the rest, what I refer to as Utility (See Jay Bayer) must be handled in-house in the moment. Once the activation agency has got the brand up and running in the hearts and minds of consumers, clients need to take over and develop the relationship predicated on countless tiny interactions designed to maximise lifetime value.

Client’s have to take responsibility themselves

Client’s need to start think like customer-centric, media-neutral, nano-publishers, constantly on the hunt for interesting customer input that has been earned. How hard can it be? I guess harder than any of us can imagine. If it were easy, I am sure Sir Martin would have a team on it right now. Perhaps he does? Perhaps the new model army agency is on the way with the quantumly-expensive creative team already dreaming up the most idiosyncratic domain name in the history of time and cyberspace. I wouldn’t hold your breath.

The problem, as I see it, is one of perspective. Sir Martin, outstanding speaker and businessman that he is, still refers to digital as New Media. It hints at a subtle predilection for Old Media. Don’t get me wrong, I too noted with sadness the recent passing of one of my greatest advertising copywriting heroes, David Abbot. I too loved working in brand advertising and on many of the greatest brands, but the world has moved on. These days a great brand campaign had better be backed up with a great online experience. If not, Google’s search engine will ensure your competitors get to cash in on your brand activation efforts.

Think small and set yourself free

The problem with the cornucopic structures of mega-agency networks is that they are trapped in the day-to-day of delivering to the bottom line in their individuated silos or tentatively collaborative cross-platform hotchpotches. A lot of overhead to feed makes you insufficiently agile or free enough to think the problem through to fundamentals. In the age of mobile, social, search and the cross-platform fragmented customer journey, it is the little moments that deliver the biggest changes in customer behaviour and purchasing preference. The big agency, in my experience, has a cultural downer on thinking small.

Life after the starting gun has gone off

So we are left with agencies trying to maintain their grip on client budgets (can’t blame them for that) and clients looking for ways to take control back (about time). It’s going to make for an interesting struggle. My bet is that the outcome will be something few, if any of us, can imagine. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. So watch this space in the coming year with a view to determining if the agency as we know it or Clients as we know they should be… ends up having the last laugh? I am putting my money on the clients.