Agency, Heal Thyself.

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This week a good friend sent a provocative Ad Age article around to several people in the industry; the topic was marketers’ new-found tendency to throw their agencies under the bus.  (“In Pressure Cooker, Marketers Lay Blame on Advertising.”)

As I read through the many complaints about this or that client publicly dissing the work of their agencies, a thought occurred to me:

This wouldn’t be happening if Hal Riney were alive.  Or Martin Sorrell, for that matter.

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The simple truth is that in the relentless pursuit of margin growth and short term victories to drive cash flow, agencies long ago stopped defining themselves.  No, the good old days were never really as good as we remember them, but you can’t dispute that in past decades ad agencies had personalities.  Some were defined by the “strong man” who led them:  Riney, Jerry Della Femina, Jay Chiat, Bill Bernbach. (In at least one case – Mary Wells Lawrence – a “strong woman.”)  McCann Erickson was “Truth Well Told” and Doyle Dane Bernbach regularly put out strong, stark creative messages that were – for the time – rather shocking.

Today I think it would be difficult for many agency employees to accurately and simply describe the DNA of the place they work.  What are the true hallmarks of an OMD, a UMI, an MEC?  Perhaps Digitas and Razorfish and Starcom all have well-defined characters – but how many of us understand them? Indeed, it’s now the rare shop that rises above the sea of anonymity and sameness.  Like, for instance, Crispin Porter Bogusky.  Say what you will about the creative excesses of the place (the creepy Burger King dude, e.g.), but CPB has a sense of swagger….and they don’t ever seem to be hurting for work.

If agencies allow themselves to be seen as temporary commerce hubs – routers for ad messages and billings – then they are complicit in their own commoditization.  I started my career at an agency (albeit early in the first Reagan term) and have spent many years prowling their halls.  And I can’t help but think that a shop with a strong sense of itself would not be so easily pushed around.

I welcome and encourage all the comments I’m going to get about how I’m wrong about this or that agency, or how my views are hopelessly naïve and dated.   But all I ask is that my agency friends circulate this post internally and allow it to provoke an important discussion:  Are you, in fact, only as good as the accounts you have on contract right now?  Or is there something more you to which you can aspire?

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