Are Ad Agencies Still Relevant?

What used to be created by an ad agency's writers and art directors -- engagement in the commercial message -- is now, according to the networks, the networks' responsibility. At least that's what they were claiming at this year's upfront -- each one selling advertisers on how their programs are better at engaging viewers in the commercials.

Listen to the networks and you would think that the commercial itself -- how it's written, art directed, produced, its emotional content -- is of little consequence to whether people watch or not.

To agency creative types, this can only be good news. After all, they now have a job where they get paid very well and are accountable for very little.

It also must be great news for companies like Spot Runner. After all, if the emotional element is no longer relevant, then the $500 commercials that Spot Runner can assemble in five minutes on a computer will likely become more popular.

As will five-second commercials. Or, even better, one-second commercials. The networks are now proclaiming that the shorter the commercial, the less likely people are to fast-forward through it. Difficult to argue with that. After all, most of us can't find the remote in one second, much less push the fast-forward button.

But it's also difficult to argue that a one-second commercial will do much in the way of establishing an emotional connection with a brand.

The question is, are emotional connections still relevant? And, if not, are agencies still relevant?

The only reason ad agencies exist is to add an emotional hook to a selling proposition. Anyone can analyze a marketing problem. Anyone can strategize. Anyone with just a little information can define a target market. An advertiser does not need an ad agency for that.

What an advertiser does need an ad agency for is to be able to condense all this information down, along with the relatively unimportant claims that clients want said about their products, and add the emotional element that will somehow engage people enough to make them watch. And, hopefully, persuade them to buy.

Tough enough to do in 30 seconds. Impossible to do in one.

So the fact that agencies have apparently abdicated engagement to the networks is indeed quite puzzling. After all, what they are potentially abdicating is their reason for being. You would think that at least one agency would have enough faith in its creative ability to say, "Hold on CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, but this engagement thing, that's what we do. We're accountable for it -- not you." And yet, we have heard little along the lines of such rebuttal.

What we have heard ad agencies talking about is technology rather than creativity. About bottom lines rather than storylines. About digitally engaging people in more places, rather than emotionally engaging them in one.

At this year's upfront, buyers and sellers have been relentlessly debating how best to invest billions in television. And while television has changed tremendously, it remains nothing more than an opportunity to speak to someone.

Whether that opportunity becomes engaging or not can only be determined later.

Engagement is a shift that happens within a viewer, triggered by some sort of emotional stimulus. Yes, the networks are right in saying that people first have to be exposed to the message to be engaged in it. But exposure and engagement serve two very different functions. And are created by two very different companies.

Or, at least, that used to be the case.

But as agencies buy ad-serving companies (WPP/Real Media) and advertisers buy agencies (Microsoft/Avenue A/Razorfish), we seem to have become an industry that has lost its focus. And, perhaps in the process, taken our eyes off the consumer.

Should we really be so surprised that they, in turn, have taken their eyes off us?

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