There has been a lot of talk over the last couple of years about how the “agency model is broken”. While a sexy headline for marketing trades, and a great scapegoat for clients, I find this phrase a gross misrepresentation of what has been happening in the industry.
First – there is truth to the client-agency relationship changing – often uncomfortably. Sometimes it is the agency’s fault for over promising, staffing non-strategic thinkers at the helm of account strategy, not fostering proper collaboration, not nurturing a culture of discovery and innovation – and sometimes the client’s fault for having unrealistic expectations, pushing agencies to do too much more with less, and not taking the responsibility to understand their own business better. But truth be told, the client and agency need each other and they both know it. Agencies need to learn how to say “no” and set realistic expectations of the new labor intensity, costs and resources required to accomplish the objectives of a client. This does fly in the face of the “old agency model” of saying “yes” first and figuring out how to execute and manage the work later. The recent resignation of the sizable Home Depot account by MRM is a a prime example of an agency forced to take a stand to ensure a profit from their work. I say kudos! Of course I don’t know if the account was improperly scoped in the first place (a common agency blunder in the over-eagerness to win an account).
MRM New York managing director Corey Mitchell wrote that “for reasons based on a fair exchange of services and a mutual inability to arrive at realistic expectations, we are choosing to walk away from our relationship with The Home Depot completely.”
Undoubtedly, the only path to success on the client or agency side is to understand the seismic shift in the way we communicate with consumers, the fragmentation of the distribution channels where we reach them, and the desensitization to marketing in general. Strategy used to be about the creative platform and how to inspire, motivate and tap into consumer passion. While these creative and messaging objectives remain prerequisite components of an increasingly difficult task of influencing consumers, the strategic emphasis has actually shifted to understanding how and where to reach consumers and the mechanisms and marketing attributes that influence them. Agencies have been focusing on reintegrating services and capabilities – to a degree creating jacks of all trades, while they should be focusing on integrating strategic planning, analytics and modeling while allowing for the growth of specialized units for the disciplines that are increasing in specialization. It’s not a silo’ed approach if the head (strategy & insights) and the tail (analytics and modeling) are driving and fostering collaboration. IPG just announced such a restructuring of their digital agency assets. Of course agency announcements and intentions sometimes vary from actual practice and proficiency.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
Since leaving the agency world in 2007, I have been working with Laredo Group, training agencies of all sizes, including some of the largest media shops in the industry. I have seen firsthand the challenges faced and how some agencies overcome these challenges while others struggle. Additionally, I have been consulting clients and agencies, including leading client agency reviews and selections for clients of various sizes. Big agencies get a bad rap sometimes from pundits. I must say that I have seen some impressive agencies who are embracing and leading the charge of change, innovation and growth. I have also seen a lot of complacency, mediocrity, arrogance with resistance to change, ignorance with a desire for change, and in a couple of instances, even straight up cluelessness. It’s tough running an agency when margins are being eroded by the complexities of the marketplace and the world is evolving faster than your staff can keep up with. It’s also tough for clients who are looking to lean on their agencies for thought leadership and executional prowess when you keep hearing how the “agency model is broken” and agencies are the bad guys.
It’s All About The Talent
The Stylistics and Michael Jackson got it right – “People Make The World Go ‘Round”. An agency IS its people. The best agencies have developed a culture that attracts and retains top talent. To a client, agencies are as good as the weakest team members assigned to their account. This is often where the biggest perception of “broken” lies. Clients – be sure to request to meet the actual team assigned to your account before working with an agency. If already engaged with an agency, take the team out to lunch, get to know them better, empower them and make them want to kick ass for you. Often times they are unappreciated and overworked. But keep an eye open for the weaker links – hey, everybody has to learn sometime – just make sure they aren’t on your strategic planning or analytics teams!
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