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What the ad agency will look like in 2020

What the ad agency will look like in 2020 Jeff Ferguson

Over the past 19-plus years of my career, I've existed on both sides of the agency/client divide. For the last almost four years, I've been the owner of a boutique ad agency, servicing clients of all shapes and sizes; however, before that, I spent 16 years as the "client." 

That means 16 years of managing -- no, wrangling – agencies and more than three years being wrangled.

When I first started the agency, I decided that I wanted to take a hard look at the way I had been treated as a client and focus on what had frustrated me the most. I always hated the bureaucracy, the lack of transparency, and the lack of understanding of the client's business -- all this needed to change.

As a boutique agency, I'm often in the position of being an agency to another agency. At times, I've even been an agency that has to act like a client, managing other agencies and being reminded of why I wanted to change what I set out to change almost four years ago.

When I was asked to write this piece for iMedia Connection, I wondered how much an industry that had been around for so long could really change by 2020. Would the passing of five or so years make a drastic difference to the way a business like advertising was run?

During the early days of the internet boom in the 1990s, writers, agencies, and clients alike claimed it was the end of the advertising agency as we knew it from before. Without even having "Mad Men" as a reference then, we knew that the agency model had to be on its last legs because of "The Internet!"

However, here we are almost 20 years later and the internet is quickly becoming another line item on the media plan.


One of the first things that I think agencies need to do away with is the use of certain bureaucratic staples of the advertising agency world. No more RFPs, no more briefs, no more stifling the creative process by making clients and vendors alike do homework that sucked the life out of what was supposed to be a creative form of business.

Larger companies still long for the warm glow of a well-filled-out RFP form, but at the very least, maybe the agencies themselves shouldn't subject media publishers to this brand of crazy. Let's reduce the RFP down to a single sheet, maybe two, of facts and feelings on what we are hoping to accomplish for the client with our plan and then leave them to present it in a manner that they see fit.

This will no doubt be a learning process -- a reprogramming if you will. We may need to provide more guidance, perhaps compartmentalize and bold a few items that will be missed or ignored. And while we may still occasionally get a nutty question from a publisher, for the most part the goal will be reached. We would enjoy a reduction of work for all involved and a clearer path to reaching our goals.

Will another five years finally do away with this time suck of a practice in our business? I am optimistic that others will realize that we're not a division of the Department of Motor Vehicles, but a business that was founded on creative thought that longs to leave the paperwork in the hands of the government.


Advertising agencies have always been known for a certain amount of showmanship. Countless movies and television shows have dramatized the nail-biting and soul-sucking process of the client presentation. Weeks of days and nights of preparation, followed by hours in distant boardrooms presenting your blood, sweat, and ideas, only for the client to turn around and tell you to put it all in TV, because that's the media they use the most.

After a few years in the business, I realized that most of what Hollywood thought of our business was spot on. Friends of mine that decided to work on the agency side of the fence would greet me with the phrase "Stupid Client!" (or worse) out of frustration with their own clients who had just reduced their work to ashes. Meanwhile, I sat back and watched as agency after agency presented its work like it was some form of magic that mere mortals couldn't understand. And worse, those who worked on the digital media side treated clients like they were children asking how babies were made.

It needed to stop. All this posturing was causing tons of unneeded work with oh so little actually being accomplished. But how can we fix this mess? One word: transparency.

We need to drop the veil and insist that our clients do the same. No longer should we present digital media, search engine marketing, and social media efforts like they were conjured in a cauldron. And no more decisions from the client whose rationale could be reduced down to, "Because I'm your father, that's why!" We all took the same classes in college, we knew what work was being done -- what was being paid for was our knowledge, experience, and creativity. Let's cut the posturing and get something accomplished.

Our clients will probably appreciate our candor -- mostly. Some will feel like they had been cheated for years and suddenly consider bringing more advertising functions in-house -- but probably not. Where the real trouble would probably come would be from other agencies that really don't want their delicate insides exposed -- mostly because once they are, clients would realize that they are mostly hollow.

From the client side, it may take a bit more work. Our inquiries of "Why?" may still sometimes be met with parent-like reasoning, but we will eventually get to the heart of the matter so that we can at least have the opportunity to present options to what was potentially a devastating decision.

However, I know this is a long road to hoe. Today, as an agency acting like a client, talking to other agencies or service providers, I realize that this effort will be like trying to deprogram someone who has been brainwashed by a cult. It could take years and years of counseling, only to still wake up in the dead of night wondering what the heck you were actually paying for each month or why your media plan had been reduced to airline tray table liners.

Will the year 2020 finally "bring down 'The Wall'" and usher in an era of openness? I think the cracks are already starting to form here.

Business knowledge

As I've written about in other articles in iMedia, I was probably part of the last generation of advertising professionals that was schooled in the old ways of the business, only to graduate into a world of digital possibilities. Trained to exist in a world of GRPs and ROI, I grasped blindly in the darkness of CTR and "Engagement."

For almost 20 years, I've heard complaints that the reporting and metrics of digital media were absolute crap. I could never really understand these cries until I realized that, as an industry, instead of adapting our new media to the world we were becoming a part of, we presented that world with new metrics and called the inhabitants stupid or old because they "just didn't get it."

As one of those rare advertising people who also possess an MBA, I knew this needed to change. We weren't trying to get more clicks, we were trying to move product. Our efforts had a cost and that cost needed to be tied to a real ROI or it would be far too easy to cut when things got tight. As I moved to the agency side, I realized that even the long existing language needed a dose of reality. "Raising awareness" isn't a business goal -- the very fact that you're advertising at all will raise awareness. You're raising awareness to sell your clients' products and services to the masses, and if you can't prove that your slick commercials or fancy websites are part of that process, then why bother?

So, we need to start asking the real questions: What are you really trying to accomplish here? Tell us how the business actually works. What are your true success metrics? Tell me what it will take to make your P&L statement sing.

Some clients will know, and they will weep at finally having an advertising partner that asked. Others might not and continue to keep us focused on metrics that don't matter -- awareness, engagement, and so on -- only to discover that their ruse was due to how they received their bonuses at the end of the year.

As we peer into the future, will we finally reach a time when the business of advertising actually acts like a business? I really hope so, as I believe it will be what keeps us alive and away from succumbing to an entirely self-serve world.

No more experts

I hate being called a digital media expert. I despise even more being crowned a "guru." I'm not a rock star, ninja, or a rocket scientist.

I work in advertising. I help businesses self stuff to people.

It's a fun job, but it's still a job. I went to school for this and have spent almost 20 years getting pretty good at what I do for my employers.

We can continue to add a touch of romance to what we do. Make a good show of it for the movies and basic cable dramas, but let's not fool ourselves here. As one of my college math teachers once said, we're not landing space shuttles here, we're trying to figure out if we made a profit.

What do I think the advertising agency of the future will be? A business.

Let's hope I'm right.

"businessman holding social network" image via Shutterstock.

Jeff Ferguson is the CEO of Fang Digital Marketing.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Jeff Ferguson is the CEO of Fang Digital Marketing (www.fangdigital.com), an advertising media agency specializing in internet marketing, including search engine marketing, display, social, and mobile. With almost 20 years of online marketing...

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