Last week, I was talking to someone about what role a digital agency would play in the future. We went down all the usual paths and came up with the usual answers, but afterward the question still lingered. What is our role in the future? I’m reasonably certain it won’t be the same as our role in the past.
In cases like this, I sometimes find it helpful to do a little linguistic excavation. I’m constantly surprised by how concise and accurate the labels we choose are, if we spend the time to explore their roots and unearth their true meaning.
What then is an “agency”? Well, agency is simply the capacity of an agent to act. It’s the sphere of “action” that surrounds an agent. So, we have to dig a little deeper. What is an “agent”? An agent is one who acts for another, by authority from them. It seems simple, but is there a fundamental concept here that has gotten fuzzy with time?
In the early history of advertising, agencies were very much aligned with this definition, I think. They carried out the acts of advertising -- including creation of the messages, production and placement -- at their clients’ behest. The best agencies also contributed by helping clients uncover and communicate core brand values that resonated with an audience.
It was here that the role of the agency started to shift. It had to do with the concept of brand ownership. Somewhere along the line, agents began to believe they owned the brand. And clients seemed willing to abdicate this power to their agents. One agency talks about “360 degree brand stewardship.” It sounds nice, warm and fuzzy, but let’s cut the fat away and get to the bone of this phrase. What does that mean, really?
To “steward” a brand means to care for it and improve it over time. Again, that sounds like a good thing. But I fear that it shifts a fundamental duty into the wrong hands. I believe that “caring” implies ownership, and it can leave a brand in a precarious purgatory, caught between the company itself and its agency. In the days when brands were built largely around media exposure, perhaps it made sense for the fate of that brand to live with the agency. But that’s no longer the case. As Jakob Nielsen has said on at least one occasion, now “brands are built by experience, not exposure.” And the brand experience has to live with the company whose DNA defines the brand. By necessity, they have to be the stewards of their own brand, because so much of what makes that brand lives beyond the reach of an agency.
So if the original definition of an agency is passé, and the role of stewardship has to live with the company, what then do we become? I can hear echoes of “strategic partners” out there as I write. But to me that term has had its essential meaning squeezed out by overuse. I don’t think it captures the essence of what a digital agency should be. “Strategic partners” as a label is like a blanket, covering everything but defining nothing.
When I look at our best relationships with clients, there are three other terms I would use: “catalyst,” “accelerator” and “guide.”
As a catalyst, we’re there to trigger change, to set off a chain reaction that has the potential to transform an organization. We can do this by giving clients a vision of what’s possible. As an accelerator, we’re there to remove the roadblocks preventing the transformation. Finally, as a guide, we’re there to provide direction, helping clients a navigate the troubled waters of digital transformation and giving them some idea of what to expect.
Advertising agencies started in the 19th Century as agents for publishers. The bought space in magazines and re-sold it to advertisers.
Advertisers bought space from a variety of sellers. Relationships (information dependencies) developed later.
Then, in the early 20th Century, agencies begain to offer creative services as a competitive tool - so that when they encounters a prospect who said "OK" but asked "who will write the ad" - they were able to say, "don't worry, we have people to do that". Longer term relationships developed.
The point is - advertising agencies which started out selling space transformed into organizations that began selling products for the folks who bought the space.
Seems to me that is still a legit function for digital agencies - that is to help the people who hire them sell their offerings - product, service, whatever. The job is incredibly more complex than it used to be - and so demands more expertise from specialized talents.
There's always the option of doing this work in-house but that existed and was practiced from the first. For a century or so there's been an on-going discussion of the values of creating, manufacturing, and distributing communications (which is what an agency does) in-house vs. using outside talent. The argument has not been resolved.
But, the idea that agencies began to believe they owned brands is so far from my own experience in the ad agency business it's ridiculous. Anyone who buys it just doesn't get all that goes into a brand.
Have to separate the legal from the non-legal issues first. The legal stuff can be pretty well-defined. Not so the rest of it.
In my view, neither the agency nor the client "owns" the brand, except in a legal sense. In the real, meaningful sense, the market "owns" the brand, inasmuch as the brand is the market's perception of what the brand promises to the market.
Ad agencies can try to put "makeup" on a brand, but the fact is, the client creates the brand's foundation, in every single thing it does over the entire course of the firm's history. As Emerson said, "What you ARE shouts so loudly I cannot hear what you SAY."
Any firm (ad agency or otherwise) that thinks it "owns" a brand (except in the legal sense) is about as deluded as a person who thinks he or she "owns" a cat.