The current agency model is broken. I know it, agencies know it, but luckily for all of us, clients haven't realized it yet.
After more than a decade of working for an agency (six years on the client side), I have come to several conclusions, none of which are pretty pictures for agencies unless they change. You see, agencies need clients more than clients need agencies, and there has been a fundamental shift in how technology has both enabled and altered that dynamic. It has exacerbated the problem with the explosion of new media channels, and it has also provided the solutions.
We have built an interweaving production process that is designed to produce media the old way, not the new way, and agencies and clients seem to be stuck in this model.
Agencies over the last 20 years have morphed into advanced communication production shops. The offline agencies have desperately been pursuing online projects with their clients, and the online agencies have been trying to do more offline work. What they both have not done, however, is change the process of production. They have been too busy chasing the money.
But agencies used to be so much more than that. They were the creative powerhouses. The ideation shops. The meme creators for their brands across society. Some still are, but is meme creation needed anymore?
The explosion of communication methods to reach the consumer has had a natural dilution effect. As the playing field got wider, it gave something to consumers they didn't have before: instantaneous access to desire fulfillment and an ability to access information about a product, not just from the company and the agency's perceived lens, but through other consumers and competitors. There have been three profound effects on the technological expansion of media: a wider communication platform for all, the persistence of data on that platform, and a plethora of spawned agency models.
So how is this all related to no longer needing an ad agency? SEM, SEO, interactive, offline, online, media, social media -- the breadth of these elements has made clients' heads spin, and the rapid pace has left many core agencies scrambling.
No longer does the client feel that one shop can handle all their needs, because in reality, no single shop can. But there is something being lost by all of the expansion: message and brand cohesion. Since your "main" agency is no longer the idea shop, and since that message has inherent problems cascading throughout so many communication channels, why have one?
I am about to commit sacrilege.
Reason 1: "The Big Idea"
What we no longer need is "The Big Idea," or at least not in the way most agencies still view it. Agencies used to exist because of that concept, but many lost their way. The communication cascade has been so profoundly altered that it is no longer The Big Idea but many smaller ones. The argument goes that everything should sit under the umbrella of The Big Idea, but I challenge that assumption. The Big Idea was necessary to help seed an overall brand image in consumers' minds and have it be harmonious and able to fit all of the little communication channels under it. That's really its essence. The problem is that when integration is attempted by most clients -- truly attempted -- it dilutes the message in the communication medium that is being used because the mindset of the consumer is often overlooked.
Traditional media (TV, radio, print, outdoor) had a much narrower human "need-state" of consumption, so messages could cascade among them while keeping the message coherent, simple, and emotionally impactful. The important thing is the bounce-back from consumers. It is their opinion of you. And their opinion dwarfs yours.
The last 10 years started to completely throw off the machinery of communication messaging. And with the explosion of social media, it became bilateral. No longer is it a tree diagram and a linear cascade downward to consumers. The internet, texting, mobile devices, etc., have all created a persistent communication feedback loop that is impossible to control. You can no longer effectively hide who you are as a company, because your Big Idea must essentially fall out of something bigger: your corporate mission, your reason for being in business.
Yes, yes, all corporations are in business to make money, but underlying that fact is how the company actually functions. The age of corporate transparency has arrived.
My argument is that The Big Idea, the overarching communication "message," should arise from the company itself because it is ultimately dictated back to you by your consumers. Unfortunately, too many companies are so mired in their own internal politics that they feel the need for the outside perspective of an agency. But agencies are often painfully unaware of the details of their clients' businesses. If you are an agency, try to be more influential internally, and don't limit yourself to engaging just with the marketing department. If you develop relationships at a higher level, the coordination between your proposed messaging and what will work for the company will be more harmonious.
Too many clients and agencies change direction so quickly that The Big Idea is never given time to cement itself, and they aren't listening to the bounce-back messaging. They still believe they can control and dictate. How often do company taglines change now? Is that the agencies' fault? No, but if The Big Idea is based on who you are as a brand, then it does not have to change with the wind. For The Big Idea to work, it must be BIG, but you don't need an agency for it. As a brand, you first need to look internally. Understand who you are as a company, and listen to the messaging coming back at you. Don't blame your agency; blame yourself for not listening.
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