The changing role for agencies in a world of modern brands

The Get Down: Baz Luhrmann's homage to 1970s New York
The Get Down: Baz Luhrmann's homage to 1970s New York

Dickens and Hip-hop get Creativebrief's managing director thinking about the future of the client and agency relationship.

Hot topic this. Clients’ businesses and their pressure points are changing, and it's having an impact on what they want (in fact need) from agencies. Tell me something I don’t already know.

Well, while this might indeed be a well-worn and headache-inducing subject for agency leaders, the painful truth is we now find ourselves at inflection point. 2017 is the year in which answers must be sought and found. Inaction and despair (the path still chosen by many) can no longer be an option.

Two ends of the cultural spectrum have proved the stimulus for my thinking on this subject – classic literature and Hip-hop. Bear with me.

I was stopped in my tracks recently by the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Most will recognise, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." But fewer may be familiar with the ensuing, "... It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us...".

These fateful words quickly struck me as a portentous rendering of our own industry today, inebriated with excitement and terror in equal measure.

On the one hand, advances in technology and data afford brands the opportunity to target and engage audiences in ways previously only dreamed of. On the other, we lament the industry’s obsession with platforms (rather than customers) and our collective failure to create enough work that moves people in the way it used to (both figuratively and literally).

And the client/agency relationship is at the heart of this polarisation, a key battleground in which the bright future or fearful unravelling of the industry as we know it will materialise.

Historically, relations between these two parties have spawned some of the great creative business problem-solving in the era of mass-consumerism, but the scale of the challenge facing both camps now is significant as they attempt to navigate the new and brutal terrain before them.

Clients list numerous challenges for the future. Among many others, these include:

  • The desire for fewer agencies, awkwardly juxtaposed with a lingering uncertainty about a truly full-service model.
  • A sense that agency structures, processes and pace of delivery must adapt significantly further.
  • An appetite for a greater degree of in-housing, at an increasingly strategic level.
  • The need for agencies to be more results focused. To adapt remuneration models and be measured against outcomes.
  • The increasing importance (yet current lack) of PR and media thinking further up the food chain.
  • The requirement for real insight (and creativity) to come from big data, and the well-documented need for media transparency.

But the point is this - most clients don’t (yet) have a silver-bullet solution. In fact, they’re craving the support of agencies to address these challenges. So the opportunity to unlock the more optimistic side of Dickens’ divergent diction is within reach if a real intention to change is embraced.

But how might agencies set about this gargantuan task of finding a fresh, influential and indispensible role for brands in the new and uncertain world?

Well it’s here I’ll leap to Hip-hop for inspiration, a topic that’s become a mild personal obsession thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix triumph The Get Down. It strikes me that agencies might take two notable lessons from the heady emergence of the Hip-hop sub-culture in 70s New York.

Firstly, Hip-hop is not simply a music genre. It’s deeply rooted in varied expressions of creativity. DJ-ing (musical), MC-ing (verbal), breakdancing (physical) and graffiti (visual). They seamlessly fuse in harmony to create a soulful art form that reaches deep into the psyche of the audience – a skill that our industry might emulate better, more of the time.

But secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, Hip-hop's emergence in the Bronx was viewed simultaneously as both an old and a new phenomenon. The culture centred on the idea of updating classic recordings, attitudes and experiences, then re-framing them in a new and contemporary context.

To me, that feels like a great place to start for agencies today looking to rediscover their swagger.

Guard fiercely the essence of the agency/client value-exchange from days of old, because transformational ideas from dispassionate and culturally-connected individuals remain the vital currency.

But modernise attitudes, business models, structures and processes; and don’t be afraid to do so now with radical conviction.

We must all move fast to ensure the next decade is the best of times for agencies and clients alike. The epoch is now.

Charlie Carpenter is managing director of Creativebrief

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