I say this with love, but if the Greek King Sisyphus were “alive” today, his punishment would be to work at an agency.
Sisyphus was punished for the crime of trickery against the gods by being damned to hell and forced to push an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down the hill -- a punishment set to go on for eternity. This is a common analogy brought up in today’s ad agency world, because most agency executives feel that working with clients and delivering success is Sisyphean in nature. They rarely get recognized, they almost never get kudos. The reward for all their efforts is typically procurement pushing on their fees, and clients threatening a review. It’s painful, it’s debilitating and it’s just a bummer.
That being said, maybe there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel! On Monday, fellow Spinner Matt Straz wrote that agencies are starting to think like tech startups by investing in technology and hiring smart people. Last week I wrote about the possibility of ad futures models for agencies as a new revenue stream. I’m not sure I agree 100% with Matt’s opinion that “agencies are back,” but I do see them having an opportunity. If they’re smart, nimble and fearless, they could reinvent themselves into a model for success!
“Mad Men” returns this month, but the world of today’s agency could not be further from that world if it tried. Agencies are going to become more like the world of finance, banking and analytics than the creatively driven, egocentric world of Don Draper. It may very well be the age of math men rather than mad men -- but there’s definitely a future, something that could not be said just five years ago. But maybe that future is more “Boiler Room” than Mad Men?
I built the first stage of my career on agencies, and I will never forget it. It’s an intoxicating business (in many cases, literally). You have real authority in the industry. If you’re good, you’re looked upon as an expert, with the largest brands in the world seeking your advice. There are perks unimaginable to many, and unattainable to most.
When you’re on the outside looking in, it’s an amazingly attractive business. However, when you enter into it, you see some of the cold underbelly. There are too many late nights, and they happen eight days a week. There’s travel with schedules always in adjustment until the last minute. You’re at the whim of your clients, and the effort you put in is almost always thankless, knowing that your hours of overworked exhaustion made someone else on the client side look good, but they may never utter your name in recognition.
The worst part is that when you do a great job, the halo effect of that work lasts only until the next time you’re in the room and you’re being re-evaluated based on what you did last, not what you did before. The bank account never seems to be overly positive, but is most certainly rather neutral, if not in the red.
The agency world can get past the Sisyphean feel if it can reinvent its technology, strategy and expertise. Everyone knows this, but no one is sure how to get there. The performance pricing that many agencies are testing is one possibility. Only charging for the higher end of the work is another, potentially giving away the execution. Creating new revenue streams for technology consulting, integration and education (or strategy) is even better. The holding companies are full of smart people who need to be deployed in the right way. The typical way talent is deployed in agencies is to put the best people against the most pressing challenges -- but that is the absolute wrong way to go. You should take your best talent and deploy it against the strongest opportunity for growth. Put them against these areas of higher margin, higher priced solutions and have them sell these through to your customers. Invent new revenues that you know will eventually supersede and replace the outdated, commoditized ones. Only then will the boulder get to the top of the hill and stay there.
Of course, pushing a boulder up a hill is a great workout. Maybe they just like it?