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The role of the modern agency

The role of the modern agency Tom Hespos

Looking at the session schedule for next week's ad:tech, I see there's a panel discussion titled "The Modern Agency." I wonder if the panel will discuss the elephant in the room, which in my estimation concerns what the role of the modern agency ought to be.

Over the course of my career, I've seen various iterations of this panel discussion. The topics dealt with tend to include things like service bundling, the role of the various agency holding companies, and how agencies can make money in the times ahead.  More recently, these panels have discussed such ponderables as whether or not an agency can also be a media seller, or whether an agency ought to be the owner of client campaign performance data.

In my estimation, many of these discussion points are mere tactical matters that have various degrees of relevance to the overall strategic question of what the role of the modern agency should be.

Personally, I believe the answer to that question is very simple: An agency ought to use the full capacity of its communications skills to effectively address the business challenges of its clients.

Agencies need to solve problems as agents, not as salespeople
That's the real meaning of the word "agent." An agency is an extension of the client and its business interests, and must act as such. Therefore, an agency can't simultaneously be charged with solving business problems as an agent and with selling media or technology to a client in such a way as to place client financial interests and agency interests at odds.

Agencies have a moral obligation to avoid conflicts of interest, both real and perceived
To serve as an extension of the client and its business interests carries a certain level of responsibility. Among those responsibilities is avoiding any situation that would cause a client to believe that agency interests and client interests are misaligned. Clear examples of this include allowing vendors who do business with the client through the agency to unfairly influence selection processes, and doing business with clients without true transparency concerning compensation. Perception is often reality in this business, and I always find it wise to not only steer clear of potential ethical conflicts, but also anything that might be perceived as such. A good example would be commission-based compensation, which can leave clients wondering whether or not the agency has made a solid recommendation to address a challenge.

Agencies are obligated to foster creative solutions to problem-solving
This has a lot of bearing on how the agency is structured, how it is compensated, and how it takes care of its employees. All of these things contribute to an environment that fosters creativity in problem-solving. Agencies need to ensure their employees are happy and unhindered in their pursuit of solutions. That means compensating them fairly, and in turn, being compensated by clients appropriately in order to keep the agency team engaged.

Agencies need to function within the framework of their clients' businesses, serving to shepherd solutions through, from concept to execution
Even a marketing program that guarantees to hit a home run for a client can't be executed unless the agency is familiar with all the processes and business rules that are specific to the client's business. There might be regulatory rules, or certain things that can't be risked with respect to the brand. But this is also about finding internal champions who believe in your solution, can help you obtain the right approvals, and can help get buy-in and participation from all key constituencies. Given everything that marketers have on their plates these days, though, agencies have to be prepared to be their own champion and keep things driving forward so that solid solutions can go to market.

I'm hoping that the panelists keep a lot of this stuff in mind as they're discussing the modern agency and what agencies will look like in the future.

Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com.

On Twitter? Follow Tom at @THespos1 or @_MarketingLLC. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Tom Hespos is President of New York agency Underscore Marketing. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade publications and has been writing a regular column about online marketing and advertising since March of 1998. His clients include Wyeth...

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