Spine

I believe that the differentiating factor between a successful agency and an unsuccessful one isn’t really about the star power of its creatives or planners. The key ingredient is the work culture and account management capabilities.

I have worked in some great agencies and some really shitty ones. I grew the most, along with others, in the best agencies. We did our best work there. We could do so because it was led by capable people in management who encouraged when encouragement was due, who gave clarity, who ensured clear lines of communications and responsibilities.

A capable ‘servicing’/ management person understands the business of their client. They might not be capable of thinking of original solutions but they must be capable of appreciating the problem that needs solving and be able to evaluate the work against the objective of solving that problem. They must be capable of building a relationship where client learns to articulate their problems clearly, where each person respects each other’s time, where there is enough openness to perform blue sky thinking.

These are essential KRAs for management people in agencies. These capabilities form the spine of an agency. Without this spine, an agency begins its descent towards being a brown dwarf.

Unfortunately, I see many agencies losing that spine. People are working without clarity, without conviction, without purpose. I am not blaming a particular agency. I believe it is systemic.

The reality is, a capable manager can earn more, do more on client side/ media side or with tech companies. Agencies don’t pay well enough at entry level, they don’t train their people meaningfully and neither is there a vision of where the agency businesses will be and consequently where the manager’s careers will be in the future. Any sensible person will jump the ship.

That’s what is happening. We have overworked smart juniors who are growing disillusioned with the industry that doesn’t recognise their input. We have under-challenged, angsty, under-motivated senior management who are not keeping up with the times. The smart agile ones are leaving the industry and the ones who are left (out of love for the craft or otherwise) are increasingly cynical, quite naturally.

Its not tough to change course and build agencies for the 21st century. I am yet to witness it though.

The precariat agencies

I am interested in the changing dynamics of agency business. So I tend to read whatever I can about new efforts being made to reinvent businesses. Some of the efforts are truly astounding – the AI agency Born, for example – sounds very interesting. Then there is Maana, a big data company that helps make sense of internal data.  I don’t completely understand them yet, but I know what need they are fulfilling and how they are relevant. They are trying fairly interesting new things.

And then I come across news from advertising agencies – and it feels as if all that ad agencies do is bullshit, not actually innovate. Just came across an article on adage that I had to read twice to make sense of. Here it is. So the article packages the desperate efforts of some small agencies to stay relevant as ‘new business models’. Sure, what they are doing is indeed a new ‘business model’ – like depending on freelancers instead of investing in teams and infrastructure or to charge only by hours instead of guaranteed scope under contract. But is any of it in their own long term interest? If you are not engaging in contractual  partnerships, you are simply creating a cheaper alternative to traditional agencies while absorbing the uncertainty for yourself.

A ‘business model’ that essentially creates ‘less value’ is similar to a ‘business model’ of outsourcing manufacturing jobs to ever poorer countries. The client gets a cheap deal and the labour at home suffers. That is not innovation. It is desperation.

precariat2

In the article, BETC LA, (a dance company? an agency?) boasts about spending ‘only’ a quarter of a million dollars on a launch campaign. I tried to dig a bit deeper trying to understand why would an agency need to spend that kind of colossal sum on a ‘launch’? The agency website still say that it ‘will’ launch in oct 2017. Doesn’t compute.

It feels like somebody had to do wild mental gymnastics to portray these various precarious agencies as pursuing bold new ‘business models’. If you get into cost wars, the cheapness spiral will only drive down the industry.

In a way it is poetic justice. The industry that played a role (even if indirect) in destroying unions and collectivist utopia of 20th century finds itself on the other side of the table – capitalism draining it out and rendering it into a commodity.

There is time still to do the right thing, to grow by increasing the ‘value‘ of what we do, by being more conscientious of what we do. Here’s a few ideas for ad men/ women to grow in the future –

1. Recognise your  precariousness and Unionise to gain strength.

2. Recognise your human potential and look for opportunities ‘beyond ads’

3. Learn from beyond the narrow world of advertising and create new value, don’t sell old wine in new cheaper bottle.

May you find your way out of precariousness.