Why 2018’s New Model Ad Agency is one we know already

Much hyperventilating in adland over the “agency of the future,” what it is, who will win and how.

One view we particularly enjoyed was that of John Townshend of Now in Campaign where he playfully plumped for “Martypops” coughing up £79m so he could retire to Ibiza. Alas John, that was then.

Actually Accenture seems to have cracked it – for now – with its “customer experience agency” positioning; neatly sidestepping the chicken-and-egg conundrum of what comes first, the website, digital, big brand campaigns etc. In Accenture’s world they all come at once, not least because it’s their consultants who are telling the client what to do.

But not everyone is in this agreeable position.

Adam&eveDDB’s David Golding wrote an influential piece last year saying that agencies would provide either “culture” (A&E’s forte) or “collateral,” mostly digital content pumped out in the service of a media plan.

That’s evidently true although not many agencies would admit they find culture a bit of a stretch.

So let’s go back to basics. Why does anyone hire an agency, of any description? Back in the day it was often through restrictive trade practice: to place ads, for example, you had to be accredited by the media. You were the principal in law so you paid up if the client didn’t, in return for your accreditation and commission.

It’s rather more complicated now although there’s still some of that around. Essentially agencies survive if they can do something the client can’t – or do it better or more cheaply or both. And, er, that’s it.

A colleague remarked the other day that agencies have spent the last twenty or thirty years chasing the chimera of a place at the client’s “top table.” a complete waste of time and effort he averred, because clients – advertisers – didn’t want someone from an agency to tell them how to run their business. They were quite capable of mucking it up themselves, possibly with help from a consultant.

Agencies operate lower down the management food chain, often reporting to client managers who know little or nothing about marketing and even less about advertising. But that’s OK because the agency does know – or should know – about these things and, more often than not, digs the client out of a hole.

Sometimes, increasingly perhaps, this just means painting pretty pictures for them: producing ads that bring their strategies to life and persuade consumers that they’re not big, evil corporations determined on screwing the last penny out of us – even if they are.

That’s the way business works sometimes. Some denizens of adland still become dewy-eyed recalling the great days of fag advertising: Benson & Hedges, Hamlet, Silk Cut etc. they were, indeed, great ads although hardly on the side of the angels (not the ones you’d wish to meet anyway). That’s also the way business works and the tobacco giants are mostly still with us, even though their diverting ads are not.

So a viable agency model is as above: one that specialises in a mixture of creative and analytical skills that can bring something different to the client party. As Ad contrarian Bob Hoffman often remarks, the big ad holding companies have spent decades investing in everything but creativity, even though that’s the one thing that marks them out from the herd; the one capability clients (or consultants, for the most part) don’t have.

The one thing far-sighted clients will be happy(ish) to pay for. As they always have.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.