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Michael Lee: is the ad agency dead – or changing dramatically into a new-style ally for clients?

The demise of the ad agency appears all set. A tombstone prepared. The obituaries written. The lilies artfully arranged.

Which is a perfect time for the AdForum 2014 Summit.

The “Summit” is where a gathering, gaggle, school or pack (choose your own plural) of the world’s leading pitch intermediaries (or search consultants, if you like) spend five days in NYC meeting with a mix of global advertising networks like Lowe, DDB, JWT and Publicis, (including an appearance by chairman and CEO Maurice Levy, below), digital powerhouses like Huge and RG/A, media giants like OMD, international agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, The Martin Agency and CP&B, smaller shops Story, Work & Co, Brooklyn Brothers, and experiential ones like Iris.
Maurice Levy, French advertising group Publicis Chief executive, attends a Reuters Global Media and Technology Summit in Paris in this file photoq

Also during the week we’d get presentations from the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) and some perspective on newer industry developments such as production decoupling.

Basically, the week is a microcosm of what the agency world has to offer clients, brands and products; the state of their business, what clients are thinking, demanding and buying, and what’s new in terms of agency talent, practices and capabilities.

What better way to get a swift temperature check on how agencies are feeling these days, and their predicted demise?

So what did I pick up?

Five things seemed to strike a chord and find a place in my memory banks.

Brands Require Culture and Talkability

Culture and talkability: two words that were a key phrase during the week.

We all know it’s not just enough for a brand to prattle on about what it does and what formats it comes in. Now, each successful brand needs to have a POV about what’s going on in the world and engage fully in it.

So I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of agencies who preached the “culture” initiative.

Brent Smart, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi NY spoke enthusiastically about moving brands “beyond reason into culture.”

Richard Pinder CEO, UK and International of CP&B spoke about working at the speed of culture and the desire to make CP&B work “the most written about, talked about and outrageously effective work in the world,” highlighting the thought that “99 per cent of all work is not talked about” and wanting to focus their work in that other one per cent space.

The Brooklyn Brothers also “want to build brands a share of culture, not of category.”

Marketers Love Makers

As I wrote in a previous post, marketers want to get closer to people who make stuff. Being able to come up with ideas is the one thing agencies have traditionally been paid for. But now the ability to build the prototypes, write the code, create the content, produce the events, get them to market tomorrow, and all within the agency four walls is becoming paramount.

The maker culture is a big one, and a huge opportunity for agencies to show off the variety of talents that lives inside the company.

Agencies Need To Be Business Transformers

Of course the best ones always have been. Or certainly have helped their clients in that objective, Ogilvy and IBM being the classic example.

But digital and social capability and thinking are transforming the way communications is used in business transformation. Saatchi NY is helping transform Walmart’s tricky reputation as they invest $250 billion in American job creation over the next 10 years. CP&B transformed the reputation of how a Domino’s pizza tastes with their handling of the “cardboard pizza” crisis, and transformed the fortunes of American Express small-business clients with the introduction of the remarkable Small Business Saturday initiative.

R/GA is transforming how we use McCormick’s range of flavors and spices, introducing an idea called “FlavorPrint,” a sort of Nike+ idea for food, and updated us on their Accelerator start-up program.

All remarkably smart, business-transforming ideas, creatively executed.

Don’t Talk About Digital Advertising Anymore

Finally, we’ve moved beyond talking about digital this and digital that.

Any agency that spends time outlining its digital capabilities and how remarkably integrated they are, clearly isn’t.

It’s all price of entry now. Anyone talking about being “born digital” is standing on an empty platform staring at the back end of the train. Digital, social, mobile is embedded in everything a successful agency needs to do. It is not a separate skill that needs to be highlighted.

The Connected Age is Upon Us

Screen shot 2012-04-19 at 8.18.20 PM-thumb-400x298-72947R/GA, with founder, chairman and CEO Bob Greenberg (left) and EVP, Chief Growth Officer Barry Wacksman specifically, led us through their thinking on the next steps for R/GA by introducing the concept of functional integration and the connected age, why it’s worked for brands like Nike, Google and Amazon, and why it’s important for any brand to build a digital ecosystem.

All very important developments for agencies and brands.

But the thing that struck me above all these was that all the doom and gloom about agencies appears rather premature.

That the people we met with are not the lumbering agencies of the past. They are bright, modern, fully aware of the world brands live in and are offering marketers a huge variety of new talents, skills, knowledge, savvy and crafts, all delivered with an energy and passion that combine in ways no other offering can.

It said to me that for all the talk of the demise of the ad agency, it’s certainly not a fait accompli. They’re not going to go down without a fight. There’s simply too much talent, passion, commitment and savvy for clients to ignore.

Where else are they going to get that – a management consultancy?

Agencies are re-inventing, re-working, re-engineering, re-emerging and not taking any talk of demise lying down.

The Summit presented me (and the gaggle) an opportunity to re-assess the ad agency of today, and I came out thinking that there’s a huge amount of talent and energy that is ready to be a great ally for any brand in any fight, from purely survival to stunning success.


All a brand needs to do is to find the right ally.

This post first appeared in Forbes

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