The agency model is definitely getting hit hard. Let's face it (and I'm not the first person to say it), it's broken. The situation described above is a symptom of the problem, not a rationale for it. One primary component of the problem is that agencies can and do offer significant value, but very few clients are willing to actually pay for it. Most clients subscribe to the theory that they should be serviced "good, fast and cheap" but most agencies tell them to "pick two, you can't have all three." Many clients want to be innovative, but they rarely want to be the first brand to test something. Everyone wants innovation, but then they want a case study for how that innovative solution will help them drive their business. What's funny is that if it is truly innovative, very few people have done it -- and you can be pretty sure there is no published case study on it.
Of course, the clients are not all to blame for this. The agencies tend to over-promise, under-deliver and are not staffed according to the level of intelligent work they profess to offer. There are some exceptions to the rule, but in creative shops as well as in media shops, you find there are a finite number of the "brilliant" characters who are driving the lion's share of the strategic work.
These are the road warriors: the people on a first-name basis with the counter people at the customer service desk at the airport. These are the folks who leave their bags and a change of clothes with the bell desk at their favorite hotels, knowing full well they'll be back in a week. They drive the majority of the strategic vision for agencies while being highly stressed, overworked and probably a little malnourished.
These people are the "A-team" that pitches your business, but the agencies have them on the road so much that they can rarely find the time to sit still and add intelligent thought to the companies they've pitched and won. What's more, the majority of client budgets get pushed to tactical execution rather than to covering the time of these people, so the clients don't get what they were looking for. This is the agency-side quandary, and it's something we need to fix.
In the old days, an agency relationship with a brand lasted a very long time. In many cases the brand and their agency partners worked together for so long that they saw each other's kids go off to college. They had a relationship that ran deeper than 40+ hours a week and they knew each other on a personal level. They were committed to one another and they offered each other the chance to make mistakes, knowing full well that mistakes were acceptable because you have to "break a few eggs to make an omelet."
It was that sense of empowerment that helped create a mutually beneficial relationship. In today's environment, the agency/brand relationship is fickle, all too often sitting on the shoulders of people who are under-trained, overworked and unable to handle the level of strategic vision that is required to make the relationship work. They are not trained to do the kind of work necessary and the model is devolving so training is getting thrown right out the window. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!
So what do we do about it?
Maybe we need a "Jerry Maguire" moment here: fewer clients and deeper relationships. Maybe we need to unbundle, working with best-o- breed shops to take advantage of the commodization of media buying and creative execution. Maybe it's focusing your strongest talent on your strongest clients? Maybe it's all three.
Yes, I think it's all three.
For agencies of the future to continue to grow and excel, they need focus. Clients need to be committed and able to empower their partners. The partners need to be encouraged to take calculated risks, with the freedom to make a mistake. You can't win without taking a shot, and sometimes when you take a shot you can miss, but you have to be empowered to take that risk. Meanwhile, agencies need to focus the right people on the businesses where they were promised, and put out their best work, not the work that enables them to get by.
Your partners work hard on the work they deliver to you and they deserve attention and more than five minutes of feedback. The clients need to default to best intentions and work with their partners as partners, not as vendors. The agency needs to staff right and it needs to put the caliber of people on business that it deserves.
An agency should be strategic and provide what's best for the client first, even if it means less revenue in the short term, but a happier, longer lasting relationship with the client for the long haul. A client should ask their agency if they are the most important client for that shop. If the shop is big, then they should ask their account team, "Am I your most important client"? The answer should be yes and it shouldn't be rhetoric. I know that every client I work on is important to me; it's my reputation on the line and it's my intelligence that is being applied to the business. If I don't take the work seriously, who will?
These may sound obvious and even a bit idealistic, but isn't that why you got into this business in the first place? Didn't you get into advertising and marketing to be creative, to solve problems and impact brands that you see every day? I know I did -- and I have a hunch you did, too.