Having played the roles of brand owner, agency guy and marketing services provider in my life, there is a chasm, a veritable Grand Canyon of envy, inefficiency and ineffectiveness that exists between the agency and the brand. Much like many war torn countries, I'm not too sure if any side is more noble than the other, but they are dragging each other down in the eyes of important others, to their own peril.
Consider that 2/3rds of brands have rebranded themselves in the last 3 years (at considerable expense), that only 10% of financial executives believe marketers can estimate their effort's business impact, that CMO's average lifespan is 27 months and only 32% of them even get a vote at the executive table and that the average agency lifespan on any one client is 4 years (previously a standard measured by decades); we have a problem that requires serious solutions.
Let's be honest - both these parties think differently, they chase different objectives, they are especially nice to each other in person and play the blame game when the other party isn't in the room and they spend time on trying to one-up each other - wasting time, money and credibility in the process. One is so distant from their customer, the other so aloof from the company it is intended to support. In many scenarios, it is a sick dance played out by unwilling parties.
Something has to budge in this new market landscape of tightened budgets, activist customers and justifying the value of the middleman. In our soon-to-be-released Buzz Report, we see that the top belief among marketers and agencies alike is the statement "Agencies will need to radically reinvent themselves in order to stay competitive with new world of marketing/social media strategies and tactics" - 83% strongly agree/agree with the statement. Essentially marketers are telling us - "we know this car is broken, it's just the only one we drive and we know we'll need to scrapyard it soon."
It's well acknowledged that clients are guilty of not providing actionable creative feedback, taking enough risk, tackling enough innovation, leveraging agency know-how and allowing agencies to more fully integrate themselves within a company's initiatives. They frequently play the role of police officer, scoreboard watcher and strategic quarterback and eschew the roles of change agent, innovation spark, culture changer and close confidante.
The worst sin committed on the agency front is how siloed these entities are. As indicated by the diagram above, there are 18 key roles a marketing services role/agency can play. In most agencies, you'll find at most 3-4 things they are really good at, 2-3 things they can do capably and 11-13 things they shouldn't be touching.
This would be fine if these agencies surrounded themselves with the best talent external to their company to tackle these other roles required. Frequently though, they will create the veneer of being competent in any subject to squirrel more agency fees away, much to their client's detriment.
Here's the blow by blow:
Ad agencies - the "lead dog" in most client businesses -their forte is creative, content development, program execution and brand positioning but are often viewed as a services vendor of a few wise old men with a lot of young arms and legs and not as a true company partner. The best are massively "creative and insightful" - the other majority make pretty pictures on paper or film. In large part, they are outsourced organizational pinchitters because they can provide resources more efficiently than the company themselves but can't appreciate or choose to ignore the inner strategic and operational workings of a client and what makes them tick. Other slights - they frequently let their broadcast creative drive the creative engine, leaving plenty of alternative media to fight for the scraps left over and too much of their client conversations involve agency fees. In the worst scenarios, they treat the client with outright contempt in the name of self-promotion and creative purity.
Brand/design agency - usually the best-dressed partner at the agency dance, in this generation of iPod, they have claimed a right to fair chunk of the marketing spending chalice. They can generate significant product/package design breakthroughs but fall short of the true "knock it out of the ballpark" solutions delivered by innovation consultancies. Unquestionable artistic merits get delivered on signature projects but these groups suffer from lack of accountability, frequently design arbitrary rules that act as poor handcuffs for practitioners and can be seen as way out of step with the new age of open collaboration and crowdsourcing.
Strategy consultancies - quite adept at getting executive level of impact - they are capable of providing strong guidance on strategic direction, business models, operational changes and customer experience solutions, CEOs love this. They are without question the deepest thinkers of the agency gang and can effectively distill direction from chaos. They make for great offsites and afternoon thinktanks but unfortunately, they are nowhere to be found when implementation happens with oftentimes little practical guidance on how to apply learnings (consider SAP implementation debacles as one of their worst offences). They promote the same recommendations across the industry creating a "vanilla-ness of best practices" and they are also frequently unaware of the players/firms to get this work done or how to make their recommendations stick past organizational culture. On top of this, they charge such an exorbitant amount and their staff turnover so quickly that keeping them around over the long term becomes impractical.
Innovation & research shops - they are the dreamers and change agents, if you look at companies like Ideo, you can make the argument that these product-centric firms can have the most valuable role to play in bottom line company impact, whereas their strength is turning insight into game-changing innovation, they are usually not adept at handing their "baby" off to the market implementation team, leading to a game of "innovation broken telephone" with the agencies required to execute in market. For this reason, poorly integrated innovation shops can suck massive organizational resources for little return.
Social media hothouses - they are the "engagement people" on the leading edge of digital culture and have embraced the merits of open source, conversation marketing and social networks as a source of value to a firm, making their benefits go beyond the mere marketing realm. However they are so narrow and jingoistic in their viewpoints that they suffer from inflated self-importance, low operational discipline and little understanding of the strategic and brand implications of their work or being able to justify their efforts by performance standards.
Digital agency - they are the "online kingpins" , if you're looking for sexy or interesting digital work, there is nobody better than the web specialists, they are the creators of new engagement tools, mashups and technologies that can get noticed and impress (even entertain), they understand the Xs and Os of building great web stuff, but because they are over-romanced by technology they appreciate less the Jimmy & Joes on how this stuff gets used by real people (how many slow loading agency flash websites have I seen when I was trying to find their phone number). They are not particularly adept at mining for true customer wants or how their work can all integrate with traditional media. In most agency situations, they are not leading the brand idea, so undetermined on whether their stuff has as much stratgic savvy as it needs to build company value.
Public relations/media firms - they are the connectors and have enhanced their importance over the last few years by providing stakeholder relations and activities that breakthrough and have the real or perceived view of being authentic. See Al Ries' The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. Leading PR firms are getting the social media stakeholder game, but the majority are still stuck on wining and dining and spinmastering the 75 journalists that matter to their world. Conversely, their media planning/buying cousins are playing the role of the "establishment" - although they make things predictably run and have the occasional breakthrough, they are playing by rules that are at least 40 years old and are almost singlehandedly the reason for propping up traditional media well past their stale date and why media hasn't shifted as quickly as it needs to into the digital realm (the stark truth - they can't easily make money in this media). They can also sometimes be fairly accused of partnering with media companies at the expense of their client interests (note the ridiculousness of upfront buys). Although both PR and media people can play along at the strategic table, oftentimes they decide to play on the periphery, tactically executing and bullhorn-ing other agency's work and being the "quiet mice" at the idea table.
Promotions/sponsorship firms - they are the just get it done "solution chasers" and have risen in importance given the need to partner with dominant retailers and activate their environments. They have also seen their role grow given a bigger emphasis by companies creating brand experiences that affiliate with brand values (i.e. concerts or sponsored events) . They are the most pragmatic group of the agency bunch and can be seen as a no-nonsense sales driver for clients (vs. the "head in the clouds" other agencies) but frequently suffer at the marketing and executive table by being overly-gimmicky, very short term in focus without any real brand or strategic value-add, leading them to be one of the last groups to contribute after the direction has been established.
Companies deserve more, they need service providers that get this multi-variate game. They need partners that can work as equals with other partners. They need firms who can sometimes lead and sometimes comfortably follow. They need services that provide real value and credibility at the executive table. They need people and staff who engage with the world at large and not hide in their marble-floored headquarters. They need agencies vested in their success. They need an agency network equally balanced on the next 6 months as they are the next 3 years. They need ideas, strategy and action in one bundle. They need the leaders of their service firms that have at least, a passing knowledge and recognition of the value played by these 18 roles and not the stifling arrogance and pride in their own. What they need is the Un-Agency.
What is the Un-Agency? It's a co-op of equal partners managed by a key client person - a zen master generalist who can pull the appropriate agency levers. The Un-Agency is a marriage of partners that play well together and stay out of each others shorts. It's a hothouse of many ideas that get dreamed up and actually executed. It's a spider web of leading marketing services specialist talent that embeds itself deeply in a company's operations. It is low on bureaucracy and "handlers" and high on "smarts" and "action". Less powerpoint, more insight. More collaboration, less arrogance. More customer/influencer outreach, less boardroom navel gazing. More sustaining value, less flavour of the day. Perhaps paradoxically, more brilliant agency partners not less generic ones.
The Un-Agency is the Detroit Red Wings (not Washington Capitals), The New England Patriots (not Dallas Cowboys) or Boston Celtics (not LA Lakers) of agency people - few stars, many role players and few problem childs, that know their roles and play them well. It is the refreshing 7UP of service providers vs. the over caffeinated and ubiquitous Cokes of the agency world. It is a brand-producing "whole" that is greater than the sum of its parts.
While we're at it, perhaps we should come up with a new term for agency as it has so much baggage and connotations. Even the name "agency" conjures up "guns for hire", a network of mercenaries and a level of remoteness. How about "concierges"? Perhaps "bespokers"? Maybe "engagement partners"?
Make no mistake though, there is plenty of very smart talent in all of these types of service partners that could deliver considerable brand performance. It's unfortunate that they are all trying to play "centre-forward" every shift and feel contempt for their other teammates...and their coach (the client) is letting it all happen. They have only a few years to figure it out before they become the traditional brand-agency network horse-and-buggy whips of the communication game and cede way to other, hungrier more promising configurations. We have got the change the smell of this place called the agency...and soon.