Which Direction for Ad Agency Evolution?

This story about the mayhem in ad-land really energized me and a number of folks i work with. It probably caused some ulcer pains to the agency leaders who read it, too. There's a revolution happening right in front of our eyes, and they have to move. They can't stay still (revenues are slipping) and they know they need to evolve (because its obvious). But, it's still hard to make a decision and go forward into the future.  Here's a couple ideas for agencies that are looking to win in the future.

Find the Idea, not Create the Idea
Most agencies i've worked with pride themselves (justifiably) on being the best creative and idea shops. The big ones invest incredible sums to get the best creative talent, because in the old days, great creative talent was hard to find. Agencies could build long, long relationships with clients because of the stable of talent they had in house. And, good talent would attract more talent and cultivate the skills of the junior folks. All those things are still true,  but with tools like Poptent, Tongal, Zoopa, GeniusRocket and dozens of others, getting in touch with creatives has never been easier.

So, instead of investing future profits in tomorrow's creative talent, agencies looking to really advance would couple the talent they have in house, with a new skill that will be critical in the future: Managing the search for the best creative idea. That is, finding the idea, not creating the idea. The new value agencies can bring to clients is facilitating these global searches, managing them for quality, being good advocates for the brand, and guideing clients through this new way of getting to their campaign creative.

We're seeing test cases from the future in Victors and Spoils, Co Collective and, here in MPLS, Magnet360.  These folks are out on the edge, creating new value and getting clients to pay them for their new expertise, not just their abilities to make ads. Traditional agencies can provide the best of both worlds but they'll have to cannibalize themselves in a lot of ways to do it.

Here's two more:

  • Live in the Data, Not the Ad – There's so much data coming out of the social stream and all the digital media big brands are buying, that the analytics and insight work is getting underserved. Traditional agencies could be investing in the skills/people who could power a new service offering for their clients: advanced social media and digital media analytics.
  • Get Great at Content planning & creation – All of us brands are publishers now. When you look at great brands like Red Bull, they create as much original programming content as most mid-sized media properties. As brands need more and more content to support the relationships they are building with fans, followers, likers, etc. they'll need the skills that most custom publishers have: Planning, developing, creating and delivering small to large piece of content. A smart move from traditional agencies would be to integrate these skills into their overall mix

If you think about it, those three skills work really well to supercharge the traditional ad business:

  1. The analytics skills lead to better insights, which makes the rest of all the creative that much better
  2. The ability to navigate through the crowds to find the best creative idea makes it easier to realize the better creative that will flow from the insights.
  3. Content planning extends those great ideas out through the stream, from friend to friend, and across the web. 

 In the end, though, "traditional" agencies will probably make their digital evolution investments based on where the short term money is: Digital creative and digital production. They'll add expensive digital creatives, and hire programmers, designers and producers that will enable in-house production. That will only bring them to parity, and won't really drive any real, meaningful differentiation between them and the agency next door.


  1. The degree to which “old agency” thinking permeates is deep, varied and subtle. Example – client has a challenge, account exec arranges to have a “brainstorming meeting” to formulate a response. That’s how agencies deliver, right? But the whole idea of “brainstorming” presumes creative, informal thinking will get you to a good outcome, when in reality, these days studious research and serious thinking are needed to develop a reasonable approach. Facts need to be established, best practices need to be aligned with client needs, etc. etc. You can’t really do that in a roomful of people and some stress balls. As you seem to say, the issue here is that the answers don’t come “out of the sky” anymore…


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