Agent - 3: a means or instrument by which a guiding intelligence achieves a result; 4: one who is authorized to act for or in the place of another.
Back in the old days – I mean, the REALLY old days of the latter half of the 19th century – the ad agency was not more than an ad broker, a primitive rep firm, really, buying and selling space in the popular journals and magazines of the time.
Over time these agencies evolved to create advertisements and aid in the development of logos and packaging for products being sold by the companies these agencies represented. By the early 20th century, shops were devoted to conducting research so as to determine what copy should be used, purchasing patterns, and consumer behavior (As an example: In 1915, J. Walter Thompson hired John B. Watson, the University of Chicago founder of Functionalism and behavioral psychology to aid in their efforts).
With the advent of broadcast media, agencies began producing actual programming for both radio and television. They also started applying the fruits of the research they'd been conducting to aid in the planning and placement of media, now that agencies were no longer affiliated with specific media vehicles.
But as the decades wore on and faith in advertising grew, so, too, did the amount of advertising being conducted. With more and more companies competing for attention, creative product over all else gained primacy, as cutting through clutter became more necessary. And as resigned reliance on broadcast as the default media of choice drove the practice of planning and placement from being a strategic discipline to an exercise in commodity exchange, most agencies became creative production houses that served up media as an ancillary, side dish.
With a plethora of outfits offering creative and media services, clients have been enabled to be more and more fickle with their relationships. Agencies have gone from being creators and stewards of a brand and instead have become executional yes-men. Agencies no longer do what is best for their clients, and clients no longer expect it. Instead, agencies have become turn-around artists for client requests, no matter how stupid that request might be or how far it takes those supposedly entrusted with an advertiser's business from doing what is best for them.
It is time, people, to put the 'agent' back in 'agency.'
If agencies hope to prove their value to advertising clients moving into the 21st century, they are going to have to do a better job of demonstrating that they know how to think about a client's business and developing media and advertising plans against it, rather than just doing what a brand manager might think will appease the secret desires of the VP of marketing.
Think about it like this: when a sport's agent puts together a deal for a baseball player, do you really think he sets out to do only what that ball player wants and nothing but? No, the agent looks at the talent of the player, his longevity, his marketability to other teams, and his personality and tries to build a contract that is most advantageous given all of those facets. He doesn't say, "You've always dreamed of playing for the Angels. Let's sign with them."
When Mike Ovitz put the CBS deal together for David Letterman, he did not do what Letterman wanted. He did what he thought was best for Letterman. Letterman was willing to bide his time and hope to one day occupy the chair Jay Leno was then in on the 'Tonight Show.' Turned out Ovitz was right, and Letterman going to CBS was the best career move he ever made. Not to mention immensely lucrative.
It is what is best for the client that must prevail.
Agencies need to stop constantly looking over their shoulders and burning resources just to get a client to 'yes,' sitting in meetings with their bobble-headed acquiescence just so they do not offend a 25 year-old brand manager. I am not saying they shouldn’t do what a client asks – the client, after all, signs the checks – but they need to serve the best interests of the businesses they have been chosen to represent by being honest, forthright, and willful in a determined delivery of what smart thinking, good intelligence, and keen instinct says will bring a brand to where it needs to go. If after you present your best creative and your best media plan and your best marketing intelligence to your motor oil client and he still wants to be on All My Children because his wife watches the show, so be it.
But at least you can leave the meeting without feeling like you just sold your soul for a handful of silver.