Re-imagining the agency proposition

future cities

Will agencies of today be there?

A recurring theme for the last year or so has been the thoughtful essay – or call to arms – to rethink the role, make-up and/or organization of the agency. New technologies, the global economic climate and the evolution of an empowered consumer have all led to the spilling of much digital ink by a host of extremely smart people.  I’ve read a lot of really well written pieces along these lines recently.  Justin McMurray from Made by Many had a great piece that built upon that agencies “Agile” claims. The main thrust is a call to action that emphasizes testing, simplicity and responding to change over deep research, insights and long decks. Justin argues that:

Deep research and immersion in complex problems is all good and well. However this approach is very much based on analytical thinking styles that tend to breed very deductive and often long-winded conclusions. Not only does this take a great deal of time, the rigidness and codification of the ‘ultimate solution’ presents an absolute with little room for argument. But too often this is simply an academic exercise in imagination, but perhaps 37 Signal’s advice to ”stop imagining what may work. Find out for real” (p.94) is a smarter alternative. More broadly, if you’re in the business of creative and innovative thinking, I think it’s time to move away from formulaic deductions and towards a more abductive, design thinking approach.

I interpret his post, which is well worth your time to read, that while many of the traditional foundations aren’t wrong, they simply don’t carry the same weight under the current conditions. Those conditions being a world of complexity and constant change. ‘Tis better to launch and adjust on the fly then sit and wait for perfection. It’s a fair point and one worth serious consideration.

So, if a new, more agile approach is needed, it’s fair to assume that you are going to need a new kind of team. Enter Edward Boches, Chief Creative Officer and Chief Social Media Officer of Mullen. He recently wrote about the new creative team and getting it to work (hint, it’s a lot more than just a copywriter and an art director). Boches argues for a broader, more collaborative environment that fosters an interdisciplinary team rather than a multidisciplinary team, which I think is a subtle but important difference. Not only do you need people with a variety of skill sets and knowledge, but you need them to truly work together, not just parallel to each other.

Both McMurray and Boches speak convincingly for the need for change, and they aren’t alone. The Dachis Group has made the need for a change to business structure a core tenet of their approach. Their Social Business Design approach looks at how technology can be harnessed not just for marketing purposes, but across various departments within a corporation.

Despite these calls for changes, some still seem unable to shake themselves from the entrenched status quo. As a result, Mark Fairbanks recently did some grief counseling for those yet to accept the inevitable as a result of Sean Duffy’s piece: Advertising Agencies: Kiss Your Creative Teams Goodbye. Duffy, like the others, understands, or at least recognizes, the changes that have occurred and the necessity for a new approach:

“The reason the creative team no longer works is because the right combination of words and images alone will no longer yield bountiful sales for the client. This is not to say good copy and art direction are unimportant. They have never been more important. Today it takes more than that, a lot more. Ad agencies now have different expectations placed on them. Our campaign solutions must do more than combine words and images to inform, inspire, and motivate. They must deliver business value in new ways that maximize the potential of digital media as well as traditional media.”

By now even our clients have seen the shifting sands and recognized that they need to change too. Steve Noble, a senior analyst at Forrester, recently wrote a piece for Ad Age entitled, How to Create an Adaptive Global Marketing Organization (buy the full report here). He also lays out a roadmap, this one for CMOs, for those grappling with the changes that we are all trying to deal with.

Ultimately a lot of this is a matter of process. Team structure, organization, procedure… these all are relevant and worthy of discussion, but ultimately they feel more like slight modifications rather than evolutionary leaps. If we are truly standing at a crossroads in the history of the marketing discipline, perhaps what is needed is a large paradigm shift rather than further adherence to the Red Queen’s hypotheses.

Ultimately a lot of what I read on this subject seems like calls for changes in tactics, or maybe in strategies, but nothing I would call radically different.  While a lot of people are proclaiming the death of the agency, their suggestions for the future seem somewhat modest. 

If you’re a zebra and all the leaves have been eaten from the low-hanging branches, developing a slightly longer tongue isn’t going to help much. You need to become a giraffe.

It’s that sort of evolutionary jump, that sort of paradigm shift in thinking, that I’d like to see. So, what am I proposing?

That agencies, far from being in trouble, need to seize the opportunity that they are uniquely positioned to grab as cultural agenda-setters, influencers and creators. I think this is a massive time for traditional agencies to not morph into something ‘smaller and more agile,’ but rather something more massive and all-encompassing.

So, rather than sit on the sidelines, I’m going to jump in headfirst with both feet and present a truly radical, immodest proposal. Please indulge me as a weave a little tale…

It’s Sunday, February 7, 2016, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are ready to do battle with the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl in beautiful San Diego. You’ve gathered with your friends and, truth be told, you’re just as excited about the commercials as the game. The Steelers receive the opening kick off and take it out to the 33 yard line. The announcers throw it to the commercial and everyone in the room goes quiet.

AC/DC’s “For Those About To Rock” starts to play as we see a shot of a white male, late-20s to early-30s running hard around a track at dawn. Cut to same guy in the gym, lifting weights. Now we see him at work, white collar job, interacting with an attractive female co-worker. Now he’s with his buddies: playing cards, at the bar, shooting hoops. Back to him and a different attractive female, having a romantic dinner. The music hits a crescendo of wailing guitars as the guy, his friends (both male and female) are in the front row for a massive music concert. Cut to stage and before we can make out the band a flash of white light saturates the screen and the copy reads:


You and your friends all exchange glances as laptops and mobile devices quickly jump into action. You’ve been part of Wieden & Kennedy tribes in the past, they always seem to get a collection of top notch brands. Because of your prior involvement with W&K you are already logged into their system, and your quick response has earned you extra engagement points as you’re one of the first 10,000 people to join the “We Salute You” tribe.

The site loads and you experience the following:

It’s set up a bit like a dashboard. You can see which members of your social graph have already logged in as well as the total number of people logging in. Additional stats show demographics (age, location, sex, etc.) and there’s also a live Twitter feed, showing the conversation around #WeSaluteYou

There are also links to various bits of media – video, music, images – that tribe members can use to remix the ad or make their own versions. But the majority of the UX interface is a live webcam that shows about a dozen people sitting in director’s chairs in a slight semi-circle. This is the W&K ‘We Salute You’ team and at halftime of the game they’ll be fielding questions from people via webcam, chat and Twitter.

This is the launch of a new cultural engagement platform, one of about a dozen that will be launched on Super Bowl Sunday by the biggest, most influential Cultural Engagement agencies: W&K, TBWA/Chiat/DayBBH and others will be showcasing their platforms in what has become known as “the new upfronts.”

Now that’s going to mean a serious recalibration, both internally and externally, from the agency. First, let’s look at the internal changes:

The new cultural engagement agency needs to be much broader in scope. Sure, it must still include all the elements of a traditional agency: creative, accounts, production, planning, etc., but also a much more diverse set of skills such as:

  • Behavioral psychologists
  • Cultural anthropologists
  • Ethnographers
  • PR pros
  • Community managers
  • Bloggers
  • Mash-up artists

Just to name a few. Are these people all ‘inside’ or merely contractors? I’m not sure and I’m not sure it matters. But access to these people is critical, and new jobs will be created in the process. Positions like Grant McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer or a new cross-discipline role like Choreographer. Someone who can take all these pieces and make them dance in a fluid, coherent way. The horizontal line of the “T” as Edward Broches lays it out.

I don’t think this type of new structure would be too much of a leap from what is already starting to take shape. The real transformation would be external as an entirely new cultural ecosystem would be created. So many of the ‘agency of the future’ essays nod to the emergence and importance of the consumer. Everyone seems to acknowledge they are playing a larger and more integrated role, yet in many ways they still seem to be the target. Agencies and brands get together and go on the hunt to find consumers. I think that notion should be challenged.

What if, instead, agencies focused on building strong communities around the one thing they have: Intellectual property.

When you buy into a brand, what are you really buying into? Are you buying into the factory workers that made the product? The materials? The people who sold you the product? No, you’re buying into the idea of the brand and to a great degree that notion is developed, created and produced by the agencies. So, what if the agency “sold in” those ideas not to brands, but directly to consumers? What if “We Salute You” didn’t showcase any discernible products but rather laid out a platform that a whole host of products could live under? From beverages to athletic apparel to a mobile phone handset maker.  This platform, compellingly articulated as a narrative that is launched directly to consumers. In the marketplace of ideas the best ones will win in this case. Agencies no longer have to worry about brand managers killing ideas internally, the ideas either win or lose based on consumer response.

The agencies best able to not only articulate their vision, but to deeply engage with consumers who buy in to and help build this vision, are the ones that win the business from top brands. Why? Because they have a proof of concept in a Facbook group of 3 million people. Because they’ve built a Twitter following and consumer generated content is already sprouting up.

Now brands aren’t paying for an idea that might work, they are paying (more) for an idea that already has some life. Would a brand put its own unique spin on the platform? Surely, from adding their unique product attributes to bringing in talent (athletes, actors, musicians, etc.) to the table.

But the key here is the reversal of the food chain. Agencies and consumers form the bond, then the brands join in. But which brands? Certainly the agencies can set their price for entry into the tribe, but the consumers can also play a real role here. The agency will be able to tap into the tribe to find out which brands will fit best. Coke or Pepsi? Nike or Under Armor? Apple or Google? I could see Noah Brier’s Brand Tags project working well here along with an entirely new position: The Tribecaster. A Tribecaster examines, researches and predicts (or forecasts) the attitudes and behaviors of Tribes for their agency. This helps the agency gain a better understanding of the Tribes and more accurately align the Tribes with brands (and vice versa).

Listen, does this concept work economically for agencies? I’m guessing that it doesn’t, but I’m not putting this forward as a viable business model ready for adoption today. What I’m asking is for you to consider that there may be other ways for the agency / brand / consumer relationship to live.  I welcome comments and hope you’ll build upon and challenge this idea. Maybe together we can create a model that goes beyond a rearranging of deck chairs and takes us from the Titanic to the Starship Enterprise.