Friday, August 28, 2009

Do You Need An Ad Agency?

Sean X. Cummings says that agencies need clients more than clients need agencies.

Agencies over the last 20 years have morphed into advanced communication production shops.
But agencies used to be so much more than that. They were the creative powerhouses. The ideation shops. The meme creators for their brands across society. Some still are, but is meme creation needed anymore?

The explosion of communication methods to reach the consumer has had a natural dilution effect. As the playing field got wider, it gave something to consumers they didn't have before: instantaneous access to desire fulfillment and an ability to access information about a product, not just from the company and the agency's perceived lens, but through other consumers and competitors. There have been three profound effects on the technological expansion of media: a wider communication platform for all, the persistence of data on that platform, and a plethora of spawned agency models.

So how is this all related to no longer needing an ad agency? SEM, SEO, interactive, offline, online, media, social media -- the breadth of these elements has made clients' heads spin, and the rapid pace has left many core agencies scrambling.

No longer does the client feel that one shop can handle all their needs, because in reality, no single shop can. But there is something being lost by all of the expansion: message and brand cohesion. Since your "main" agency is no longer the idea shop, and since that message has inherent problems cascading throughout so many communication channels, why have one?

I am about to commit sacrilege.
Most corporate websites are painful reflections of their internal structure. They spend millions on revamping and solving problems, but in reality, they do not address the core issue. The agency model preys on this behavior. It is as if you built a shack that has had room after room bolted onto it -- kitchens, dining facilities, bathrooms, showers, etc. It may appear to be somewhat cohesive on the front end, but at what cost? This is not an agency problem but the client's unwillingness to make substantive decisions for their external web presence.

When you decide to redesign that shack, all of the extra detritus comes along for the ride. You may discard items here and there, but feature-creep somehow always results in another monstrosity being built, and you end up building an Edsel.

The Sauce

Cummings makes some very provocative points (focus groups as CYA, the practice of moving a top performer in an agency to a new venture altogether in hopes of replicating performance) which may give agency honchos and their clients pause.

The current mantra of "adapt or die" brought on by the economy, social media and the rapidly evolving internet will make this a watershed decade. Agencies will have to make a true commitment to the online age--not just slap a new website up and call themselves experts in new media, charging the same fat fees.

Watch for more mergers, big accounts getting pulled and a lot of hand-wringing...

The comments section is open for your thoughts.