The agency world just lost one of the greats. Wexley School for Girls in Seattle announced it will shut its doors later this spring. For many in the industry this was startling news: a well-regarded creative force with impeccable credentials and a seemingly thriving business closing? The reasons cited, though, were revealing. To paraphrase, the creative business that Wexley entered a decade-and-a-half ago was no longer the creative business they were in today. The advertising world had changed, and they were now in search of a new model.
What is a real new model agency today? That’s a question on the minds of many as the pace of the agency world is increasingly mismatched to the reality of the market and the needs of clients. The rise of digital and social has forced a new reality, which, paradoxically, is bringing us back to the future. In a beautiful reversal of what we now know was a major industry downgrade, rebundling of services is back: media, production, social, brand, analytics all under one roof, all working together. And speed, the heretofore ultimate heresy in advertising, is fast becoming the standard by which all agencies are judged. The faster the better.
This is a sea-change that the industry needs to embrace. Why? The digital economy calls for fast thinking and quick solutions, from creating and executing integrated media plans to creating content. Back in the day, a commercial took months, perhaps years to develop and had a long shelf life. Today an online film, which is what most coveted 18-34 consumers watch everyday, takes a couple of weeks, maybe days to make, with a much shorter useful life. The creatives in new advertising work closely and iteratively with strategy, media, and analytics to fine tune the what, when, and where of brand messaging. The new advertising is delivering on strategy and content at the pace brands are demanding. Speed doesn’t mean rushing, it embraces experience, intuition, and collaboration to get to the answer faster.
Marketers needs have been changing in an increasingly fast-moving, complex, and competitive marketing landscape. This first manifested itself with clients wanting agencies with specific expertise. "I need an expert in social," or "I need an influencer shop," contributed to the march from AOR to project-based work. Great brands wanted the security of knowing the tactical job would get done right, and didn’t want to be tied down. In the crucible of this new reality, great agencies learned at an explosive pace, confidently challenging old conventions and building functional flexibility into their arsenal to compete.
Today, the need for speed has changed things again. Great work and the requisite accompanying results are now born of an interdisciplinary symphony. The same functions that were unbundled and distributed among separate agencies over the last few decades now need to work together as a seamless team to crack problems. And they need to be comfortable when things get messy as we scream across the finish line. Say good-bye to the perfectly gift-wrapped baton pass between agencies, and hello to the new integrated model—renaissance firms redefining what it means to be creative.
Today’s clients need business and brand outcomes that meet increasingly disruptive competitive forces, career pressures, and the uncertainty of these accelerating times. Old agency work models look positively lethargic in this context. The standard agency complaints, from "that’s not the job of the advertising," to "we need more time to do this right," to "they don’t know what they want," are wildly out-of-sync with today’s unpredictable and exponential world. The core constructs formed over the past several decades are ready for a fundamental rethink.
It’s time to end the agency refrain "we are the experts." Expertise is a trap, because it’s a notion set in the past. While we may be skilled in a particular area and successful in a particular context, the landscape usually has changed in a meaningful way since then that opens up the viability of a newer, better, faster approach. Expertise creates a barrier to honest collaboration between agency and client. Ironically, expertise also breeds complacency around continuous growth and development of skills in a dynamic world. Eliminate the notion of expertise and remain open and curious.
The best agencies are founded in pursuit of an ideal. They fulfill fundamental unmet needs—building solutions to the vexing problems that other agencies are unwilling to take on. Unwilling because it’s too hard, because it challenges their profitability model, or because they’re too set in their view of the world. The new agency model is focused on rigorous, creative solutions to authentic client pain points that deliver outcomes at today’s speed. If we open our eyes to the customer-centric mindset that we know to be right and that we have always used to counsel our clients, the path ahead is clear, exciting, and dare I say, more profitable.
Amir Haque is an amateur futurist and partner at Santa Monica-based Mistress.