The Label of an Agency

"Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said, 'To label me is to negate me?'" – Wayne Campbell, Wayne's World

What kind of agency are you? Are you an "Interactive" agency? Are you a "Traditional" agency? Are you a "Direct Response" shop? Are you "Integrated?"

The interactive advertising industry has been going through somewhat of an identity crisis since the implosion of the dotcom era back in 2000. For the 5 years or so prior to that, companies were starting right and left that were based almost exclusively on a net-centric model of operation. And they were desperate to market themselves and their wares using the medium that facilitated their existence. Long-standing advertising agencies didn't know what to make of this new medium and the companies that needed someone who did know what to make of it needed to find a service organization that was dedicated to being a part of it.

Enter the Interactive agency.

These shops catered to these newly sprouted companies by positioning themselves as experts in the online medium. They were proud and ambitious organizations that moved as quickly as the interactive space was evolving and they were in high demand.



These small, daring outfits led the way for their clients and the advertising industry at large into a brave new world that many of the more established members of the community were reticent to go and recalcitrant to believe even had merit.

But since 2000, being an Interactive shop hasn't meant what it did before. Suddenly there was suspicion that these boutique agencies were as transient as the companies whose advertising efforts had built their business. The outside world thought that anything related to the Internet was as good as done. Agencies specializing in the medium were going to evaporate like rubbing alcohol applied to the belly-button piercings of their creative directors. Sure enough, many of these shops did just that. MarchFirst trundled out of existence. The roll-up IXL went MIA.

Since this time a conversation has gone on about the future of the stand-alone interactive shop. Talk grew, and continues to grow, about the need for integration; how 'traditional' agencies will mesh with their 'interactive' counter parts to provide synthetic services and synergistic marketing.

But we still find the language of division as the Lingua Franca of advertising conference panels and industry op-ed pieces. When discussions about agency service integration take place, the words 'online' is used in opposition to 'offline' media. Digital marketing is cordoned off from terrestrial marketing. Traditional agency services are help up against interactive agency services. Advertising is either 'branding' or 'direct response.'

Now, the problems of integration are much more complicated than that of a simple deconstructive conceit. The lack of incentive in an agency to integrate media and marketing services is one of the biggest obstacles. And I could go on for days about the degradation of the notion of an advertising agency actually being an AGENT for its client (stay tuned for next week!). But if we are serious about seeing a new age of advertising, where ALL media including online are seated at the same table and given the same consideration as one another, shouldn't we use language that fosters union?

To get my meaning, think of it like this: You can't start an agency today and say, "We're going to just do just television." So why is it still this way when talking about interactive advertising and media? The industry continues to isolate itself by referring to itself with the language of insulation. There is the constant tone of "us" and "them." "They" are the ones that have weak and brittle metrics but "they" get all the money. "We" are more accountable, but "we" get short shrift by our broadcast brethren. The online advertising industry positions itself with an air of victimization and making it be something that others subconsciously don't want to be a part of for fear of also being a "victim."

The notion of 'traditional' when talking about agencies is a part of the problem. The industry itself is using a language of Otherness that maintains a division between practices and disciplines between and within the agency structure. By even saying 'traditional agency' we set up quiet conflict. Think about it. Do you segregate your friends when you speak of them to others? "This here is my Croat friend, Mike, whose dad escaped over the Adriatic Sea. But he made good and so their family has money and he went to college. This here's my Sudanese buddy, Emir. He's a recent émigré and a bathroom attendant at the Jade Room." Judgments of class and advantage are made, creating sublime distance, division, and even discomfort.

I think the time has come to start talking simply about ADVERTISING. Like John Durham of Interep once stated, "Tastes great. Less filling. Either way, it's still just beer."

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