'Agency Of The Future' Depends On People First

What would the agency of the future be without the people who work in the agency?

Everyone writes about the agency of the future, hypothesizing about the structure and the services they will provide, but just about everyone overlooks the fact that an agency is only as strong as the people that work there. People are what drive the relationships between clients and partners.

The agency business itself is in disarray because of three primary reasons.  The first one is that agencies don't price themselves properly for the services they offer.  The second reason is that agencies don't do right by their employees. They overwork their people, resulting in poorly motivated, cynical, under-trained employees who have little to no loyalty or passion for the business they are in.  The third reason for agencies' problems: they have focused on execution rather than strategy (a topic for an entirely different article).

The agency of the future will create an environment that fosters creativity, breeds strategic thinking and rewards positive interactions and successful execution.  In the agency of the future, everyone takes responsibility for themselves and the immediate world around them.  These people are emotionally invested in the success of their clients and monetarily compensated for that success.  In the agency of the future, the wealth is shared because the responsibility is shared, and the needs of all are intertwined!



If you talk to agency folks with less than 10 years of experience, they will tell you, almost 100% of the time, that the only way they'll be valued for what they're worth is to change jobs and companies. Even if they do so, most likely they'll still complain about the same old issues. 

What does that say about the business?  It's a well-known fact that agencies tend to pay more for outside talent than internal people.  Of course, the agency business is first and foremost a business, and that's how they've chosen to deal with the business issue of attracting (but probably not retaining) talent. Instead, agencies need to take care of their most valuable asset first, their people.

The most difficult challenge that faces the agency of the future is retaining talent.  If you invest time and energy in your employees, you want to know they'll be around to apply that knowledge to your business.  To do so, you need to uncover their motivations and create an environment that provides them with satisfaction.

 Creative people are motivated differently than media people, and account people are motivated even more differently.  You need to identify what drives them and work with them to create that sense of loyalty to your brand, so they stick around for the long haul.  Of course, paying them what they're worth is an important part of the equation, but I believe that people should get the upside when the business they work on does well, so compensation should be tied to performance.  If you create an environment that fosters success, then who wouldn't want to participate in that success!

Of course the employee has some responsibility in this relationship as well. Employees of the future have to be passionate for their business.  They have to be willing to learn.  They have to be willing to multitask.  They have to create boundaries and strive for some balance in their lives, or they'll burn out and fade away. 

It's true that many agencies work their people to death, but in just as many cases there are examples of employees who aren't willing to work with the people around them and function as a team.  Teamwork is the core of the agency of the future.  Your colleagues need to know they can depend on you, and vice versa, to get the job done right.

To some, the agency of the future may be our "white whale," but I don't think so.  I think the agency of the future is far more attainable than most of you are led to believe.  The agency of the future is made up of the right kinds of people, with a structure that will make them a success.

So what kind of agency are you?

17 comments about "'Agency Of The Future' Depends On People First".
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  1. Mark Naples from WIT Strategy, February 3, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.

    Just a great piece, Cory. Man, you could write a book on this. No wonder brands don't trust their strategy to agencies, hmm?

  2. Heather Foster from Harmelin Media, February 3, 2010 at 11:25 a.m.

    Awesome article!

    You hit the nail on the head.

  3. Agnes Huff from Agnes Huff Communications Group, February 3, 2010 at 11:42 a.m.

    Excellent points and I would like to add a few of my observations. We can't price ourselves appropriately when others are practically giving the work away free. That is a direct result of economic conditions and our clients' increasing need to get work at the cheapest price, often sacrificing the basics of our trade - research, strategy, quality and often results in dissatisfaction with the agency experience which further impacts our real value to a client's business success.

    We are not looked upon as strategic partners in many relationships, but as vendors or in some cases as a another employee - to execute client directives. Unfortunately, this has been brought upon us not only by ourselves, but by the evolution of our client relationships. I agree that the right agency, with the right mix of collaborative people, AND working for the right client, can and will be truly successful. Thanks!

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 3, 2010 at 11:53 a.m.

    The agency - or any business for that matter - as you have stated (and I think on more than one occasion) is discobobulated and uses their employees as air pumps. It's a Catch 22. What's an employee to do? Change agencies? Change careers? They do not have the power to change the upper echelons. Clients boomerang between the same agencies and wind up working with the same people. How many idealog onwers are out there in the media business where their share is their employees share? How many agencies are corporations and not human entities? Can YOU change this to your ideal and can I be your employee?

  5. Sergio Diaz from Lime, February 3, 2010 at 12:11 p.m.

    Great post Cory. You can actually relate this to most businesses not just agencies. At the end of the day, people want to feel that they are valued. Management is always so concerned about patting their employees on the back because "then they'll want a raise". You'd actually be surprised how far a "thank you" and "great job" gets you. What motivates most of us is that we want to feel appreciated and we want to feel at "home" with our job so we can settle in and build roots. We want to feel that our voice matters. And if it doesn't, then all management is looking for are work monkeys and what's the point of that? Its so sad that people tend to only appreciate things more when they are gone.

  6. Douglas Cleek from Magnitude 9.6, February 3, 2010 at 12:13 p.m.

    The agency of the future will always keep evolving... no matter what market influences and technologies come by. No need in trying to pin it down. My old company, K2 was touting this in mid 90's. I hear the same message today.

    Your comment about the value of an employee only being recognized when they change jobs has some truth to it.

  7. Caroline Kawashima from social persuasion, February 3, 2010 at 12:20 p.m.

    Cory, couldn't agree more. While agencies spiral downward in trying to grasp every last dollar, the majority have misplaced their attention. As you state in your post, agencies need to create the right working environment and in my opinion, many do not place enough focus and attention on creating and reinforcing the right culture - in fact, many have not even really identified what their culture is and what they believe in. Agencies, companies all talk about people being their greatest asset but few can truly realize this potential.

  8. George Parker from Parker Consultants, February 3, 2010 at 12:51 p.m.

    You say... The agency business itself is in disarray because of three primary reasons... You miss the most important one of all. All the BDA's (Big Dumb Agencies, as I call them on AdScam) belong to one of the four holding companies. These are all public companies run by bean counters. It's all about making the numbers every quarter, rarely is it about the work. As a last resort they will use the "Chainsaw Dunlap" method of management i.e. Laying people off. The workers know this, they keep their heads down, they do not make waves. As for the Agency of the future, WPP tried this with Enfatico, a total disaster that folded in less than two years... They did virtually no work for Dell while spending their time opening offices all over the world. The Poisoned Dwarf (Sir Martin) fumnled the ball badly on that one, but is still on taget to collect his $96 million bonus in a couple of years. It isnt the people in the agency at fault, it's the people running the holding companies. Remember how the merger of Draft and FCB was touted as yet another Agency of the Future... Sure, what's next... Victors & Spoils. No wonder this business is screwed.

  9. Joseph Lyons from Turn, February 3, 2010 at 12:51 p.m.

    So true Cory and I'm starting to see a few smaller agencies who have figured this out really start to invest in people first. Agencies need to hire thought leaders in their space and they can build out great teams from there. I've seen so many agencies flounder when their leaders exit and then other good young talent follows due to the reasons you mentioned. It happens over and over. Smart, talented people are the key to driving strategy and results and ultimately that's what brands are hiring agencies to deliver.

  10. Ned Newhouse from, February 3, 2010 at 4:35 p.m.

    This is an appropriate time for all businesses as the economy picks up to recognize their most valued employees. You risk losing them, otherwise you create a known culture of people to seek outside offers in order to get a raise. Companies that have appropriately pinched pennies during this recession IMO would be well served not to loose keep people with recognition.

    Raises and money matters these days so give them to the people you really need to stick with you. I like to also remind businesses that if their money is really still tight while compensation is important there are indeed other ways to reward people that are the stellar multitaskers in the company. Having an employee of the month parking spot, giving an employee an extra week off, title changes have value without a raise.

    Buy the company lunch, once a week even once a month. Creates more of a family atmosphere where you break bread together and discuss your lives or a new business idea.

  11. Heidi Kraft from Kraft Your Success, February 3, 2010 at 6:09 p.m.

    Cory - you are speaking my language. Great post and comments too. I have long felt the irony this business where people as the sole creators of the product (i.e. service) aren't valued as the first priority. At the end of the day, we all just want to make a difference and hope that someone notices. I so believe that.
    On another note, there's a great book out there by Daniel Pink, called "Drive". It speaks to what really motivates us now vs what did in the past. The world is changing quickly and no one knows that more than folks on the media side of the ad business. And agencies and organizations stick to old models (carrot-stick-money) focused motivators instead of recognizing that our motivation needs to be intrinsic to create great success and solid work. Check out the book!

  12. Mark McLaughlin, February 3, 2010 at 10:06 p.m.

    I'd be curious to see if Cory and all those offering comments can provide a definition of "agency" - what exactly is the definition of agency today?

  13. Andrew Hazen from Prime Visibility LLC, February 3, 2010 at 11:47 p.m.

    I agree wholeheartedly - well said Cory! I always say that our success depends on our team and the morning you wake up and do NOT look forward to coming into Prime Visibility then something is terribly wrong!

    With a team of 45+ it is obvious who truly cares about the success of the company and feels vested in its success; and then there are those who tune us out the moment they leave the parking lot....that makes me quite sad.

    Work should never be considered rough/ the contrary when you do what you love for a living then it really isn't rough/tough (i.e. some call work) it is nearly midnight and I am still raring to go!

    To me, the utopian agency/firm, regardless of size, is an ENTIRE group that feels, thinks, acts and reacts everyday as if the business is their own!

    Thanks for the post - it is certainly appreciated here!


  14. Scott Cone from 247 Ventures, Inc, February 4, 2010 at 11:31 a.m.

    I have a little different perspective. I disagree that the only truly unique thing about an agency is it's people. This may have been the case in the Mad Men/Don Draper days but those days are gone. Most of the bigger agencies were built to provide mass marketing but in a world without mass media, how do you really practice mass marketing anymore? When these big agencies use the phrase "best people" I think we all assume "most creative", "award winning" or even secretly, "they help us win clients". This isn't really the definition of "best" any client cares about. And every agency claims they have the best people. Seriously, visit their web sites. If everyone says it, it can't be differentiating. Besides, "best people" is pretty subjective and ends up becoming a matter of taste...unless by "best" you mean something different than how that's typically taken. I think the agency of the future (and that would be right now) will do three things really well:
    1. It will offer clients unique ways for getting to real world/real time (i.e. NOT focus group) data and insights on what consumers actually DO instead of what they SAY they do.
    2. It will use those insights to craft unique and relevant ideas that will motivate the consumer to TAKE ACTION (results are not optional).
    3. It will create

  15. Scott Cone from 247 Ventures, Inc, February 4, 2010 at 11:42 a.m.

    Sorry, my touch sensitive computer posted my last post before I was finished...
    3. It will create a system and process for deploying the RIGHT people based client's business challenge and this will be done on a on-demand basis.

    In essence, whereas they used to say: "You can have good, fast or cheap...pick two" the agencies that thrive from this point out will have figured out a way to offer all three.

    One final point: for all the lip service about how important people are to the agency business, that's what it mostly amounts Our industry is full of Barnum and Bailey's who believe there's a sucker born every minute in the sense that their people are the suckers...we've all busted our butts in agency sweat shops for the promise of the big pay-off, only to be ripped off by the shifty agency CEO who pockets the profits for him or herself and leaves a trail of human wreckage in their wake...everyone else be damned.

    What this has done it that it's created an "every man for himself" environment, where the best agency people are now developing multiple streams of income...freelancing, starting businesses, ghost writing, whatever they can do to parlay their talents into additional money for themselves. This recession and the rounds of layoffs has destroyed any loyalty that could have existed in the business. They weren't loyal to us, so why would we ever be loyal to them again? Never again will the most talented among us put all their eggs in one basket.

    This, of course, falls in line with how business will get done in the agency world from this point out. Want to see what it looks like? Look to Hollywood. They've been producing movies for years using an independent production company model. That's the true future of the agency business...teams of talented people come together for a project, do their best and move on to other projects.

  16. Steve Noble from, February 4, 2010 at 3:30 p.m.

    Hi Cory I have been following your stuff for quite a while now. This article gets my response. I offer video ad services and find that my business has become more of a full service agency doing a lot of web and social network related work in order to maximize the video investment. My agency of the future is a small team of me and freelance contractors. Easy to keep me happy when the team is 1 The trick is to keep an open mind and learn from the freelance experts so as to offer the best to my clients. It's quite refreshing actually to pick new teams on a regular basis based on the work requirement. Keep up your good articles. Great job Cory!

  17. Adam Kleinberg from Traction, February 5, 2010 at 11:58 a.m.

    I think you've nailed something. At the last iMedia Agency Summit, I heard a lot of agency people moan that "clients didn't want to pay" for them to train their people. That's a load of crap. Agencies don't want to pay to train their people because they are afraid their people are going to take that investment and leave. And they should be afraid because most agencies treat their people like shit.

    Want to exceed the expectations of your clients? Start with exceeding the expectations of your employees.

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