The Ad Agency is Dead, Now What?

The nervous energy in advertising land is palpable. Every morning that Alexa delivers my daily news briefing, Ad Age is reporting a fresh agency consolidation. VMLY&R, J&J, JWT; an alphabet soup that represents our soggy, sad industry. Agency executives, hungry consultancies and weary clients are all peeking at each other’s answer sheet, looking for the answers to the future.

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Well, for me, the right answer choice is D, none of the above. Agency, consultancy or client, the real concern is not who will take over the reigns of advertising, but how does the fundamental structure of the business need to change?

 We can talk about the importance of weaving data into the creative process or the need for more efficiency in content production, both valuable conversations. However, I’d like to explore a different culprit, creative organizational structures, as the root of our imminent problems.

Ever since the glory days of Madison Avenue, there has been a strict separation of church and state, externally between client and agency and internally between departments; account, creative, strategy. From project kick-off to creative delivery, we’ve built walls to contain the model.

I was recently working with one of the largest hotel brands in the world battling unfavorable brand associations. Significant efforts were being made to combat these perceptions including the launch of a new campaign. The client submitted a comprehensive brief that included the new brand positioning and the service upgrades that would help prove the brand was committed to change. We had one job - communicate the shift and the benefits in a compelling way. So far, so simple.

Then, the agency organizational process got in the way. The account team ingested the client brief and passed the baton to strategy. The strategy team translated the client brief into the creative brief and passed the baton to creative. The creative team translated the creative brief into creative concepts. The process took 8 weeks time, 10 top level agency executives with agendas, 5 confused juniors and critically, 0 clients. The final outcome was exactly as expected. Marginally interesting creative, only marginally related to the client vision. You can guess how the project ended. So, what should we have done differently?

We should have abandoned the assembly line of creativity.

We are not in the business of building advertising units on an assembly line, we are in the business of creative solutions to clients’ problems. Let us act like it.

We need to function less like a bureaucracy with specialized units and standardized tasks and more like a living, breathing business. We need new organizational structures that allow for flexibility and instill true feelings of partnership whether that is between departments or with our clients. We need to free ourselves from the advertising formula, (brief + deliverables = work). We need to rebrand ourselves as creative problem solvers and teach our clients to come to us asking “what do I do?” instead of, “when can you deliver it

Does this sound like something out of a fairytale? There are already companies paving the yellow brick road.  

Creative agency Red Antler is known for investing capital and helping to raise funding for their clients. PR firm Derris is incubating ideas and building brands from the ground up. Revolutionaries like Buzzfeed are getting involved in supply chain management to manufacture products and create new revenues streams for their clients. The world’s largest appliance maker, Haier, has overhauled their traditional structure to set up internal microenterprises, empowering their team to act like energetic entrepreneurs, inventors, and partners to their customers.

Business-minded and solution-focused, this is the future of creative agencies. The smartest people in the room will build their organizational structure with this in mind.