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The future of the ad agency

December 30, 2009

Over at Forrester, there’s an interesting look at the future of the ad agency. Since I happen to work at one, I’m intrigued by the future of agencies. There are some good comments under the article. So go take a look.

I think 2010 will be the year where we really look into the future of agencies. We’re all sort of aware that the model doesn’t work as well as it did, but we’re not sure what model will work. Indeed, Steve Wax wrote:

“Great question, but I think we’re at such an early stage in the media revolution that we need to ask what the questions are, not what are the answers…”

I tend to agree. We’re not sure how this will all shake out, or even why we think agencies won’t be necessary. As we enter the Tens, I’m psyched to be working where I work. I think we’re on the right track at Eric Mower and Associates. Here’s why:

It used to be that different agencies were responsible for different tactics on the consumers path to purchase. The big ones took care of “Brand”. The digital ones took care of the website. The direct ones took care of the direct, etc.

This worked because “The Brand” basically ran the executions throughout the tactics. The Brand was the AOR, known as the Agency of Record. They dictated the look, feel and voice of the brand. Indeed, they would even publish Branding Guideline Books that talked about where the logo was appropriate, and where it wasn’t. It talked about the voice. It talked about colors. It was the brand bible, and all the other agencies that worked on the business got one.

This worked because the consumer’s path to purchase was a more linear path. It was awareness –> scouting –> purchase. Tactics like TV, print and radio solved awareness. Direct and promotions solved scouting, while coupons and in-store solved the point of purchase. And PR was always kind of separate.

The model was simple. Dictate the voice at the from (awareness), and ensure it all matches up in the middle and the end. The end was the purchase. Outside of airline Loyalty Programs, no one really cared about the post-purchase consumer.

Then came broadband internet access.

And the model feels broken because the path to purchase is less clear. Awareness can be generated through a PPC campaign (and who does that, the interactive agency of the brand?). Webinars, social media, PR and the blogosphere can impact the path to the purchase. The website is no longer just a brochure, it can be a tool to nurture people who aren’t yet buyers. Social media can turn post-purchase fans into product evangelicals.

So what does this have to do with the future of agencies?

I think that the agency that can handle everything on the path to purchase is an asset to a client. Where once we were siloed, handing web work to this agency, direct to that one, and calling the one that handles the brand the AOR, I think now the smart client takes it all into one place. A full-service, nimble shop that fights for a strategy, not the tactic that fits in their silo.

(Note: the accusation here is that an interactive agency would love nothing more than to have the client spend all their marketing dollars online, and not on TV. There is a risk when a client breaks up business that agencies fight for dollars in the marketing budget not on strategy, but because they simply want more of those dollars.)

True, clients can still outsource the tactics across the board — but then it will be on them to look at the overall consumer journey and see that the touch points reiterate what was said by all silos. Clients will require a Director of Message type role that works with the agencies (or freelancers) to ensure everything works together.

Because when everything is connected via the internet, then if it doesn’t work together, it’s a waste of money.

So it’s in that strategy that agencies still have value. Especially ones that offer strategic direction across all disciplines.

Full-service agencies are the unofficial “Director of Message” for the their clients. In the Tens, that will be critical.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2009 7:42 pm

    I agree, marketing professionals need to know social. But your point about marketing across media made me think…if a client hired me to help market their business (with an online foundation in their website) I would only be able to offer them assistance with online marketing. And maybe they should be using TV or print as well. So they still need a traditional marketer to help with that. Because I work at a web development company, and not a marketing agency, I help my clients integrate their web presence with their web marketing. That is the sort of adaptation that needs to happen, not traditional marketers becoming online marketers, or vice versa.


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