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.

 

A capitalist industry can only be saved by a communist ideal – unions

Everyone whines about the bane of free pitches. Everyone knows that it is bad for business. It strips away dignity that should be afforded to agency’s labour. Why should any labour be free? Besides, it increases uncertainty about businesses with increasing frequency of pitches. Clients behavior is changing – it is getting conditioned to treat agency as ‘vendors’ rather than strategic partners. Agency heads and industry leaders appear intelligent when they talk about agency business model looking towards consultancies and looking to eat their pie. Their inaction towards improving dignity of agency labour belies these tall talk. There is too much gas in the upper echelon of holding companies and agencies and not enough will to do what is right.

The industry association in advertising doesn’t do anything that other industries do. They don’t organise in the interest of industry or its people. They only organise around narcissistic games of chest thumping and celebration of individuals – Awards. Clients don’t care  nearly as much about awards as agencies do. If it doesn’t help companies as much (it’s a competitive edge, but an expensive one to maintain), it doesn’t help its people (apart from egos of a few. It doesn’t empower anyone. It creates false ideals), it doesn’t help its clients… what good are awards for?

The inevitability of marginalisation of agencies in marketing world can be reversed. But not by its leaders. They still get paid well. They aren’t hurting much personally with the slow erosion of industry’s value.

The change will be effective only if creatives and studio people unite across companies and countries in a union. It doesn’t help that most of us in agencies are hopeless narcissists. We want individual glory. Anything that is achieved collectively makes us doubtful of our own importance. So unless we grow up from that infantile tendency, we are doomed.

Creative people imagine themselves as free birds. But in reality, they are more like the rocks at ocean face – sitting in the office, unmoving, against the assault of never ending and scarcely ebbing waves of briefs and reworks. The rocks need to grow roots and connect with each other across agencies to grow. Otherwise, neither their creativity will improve nor their lives.

The idea is to simply assert self-interest. Why should you (people in agencies) work for more than 8 hours a day?  What good are those annoying timesheets if they can’t help bring in accountability of labour. There should be compulsory overtime payment for hours worked beyond office times and other perks and compensations for opportunities lost in the darkness of late night cubicle dwelling. The idea is for over hours to become an exception, not rule. It is an escapist’s ideal to dwell in his cubicle to escape having to face real life and real relationships at home. For people like these, leaders need to intervene and help them grow in healthier ways.
If the agency has to pay creatives for each hour spent extra, they will be pinched for free work and pitches too. Hopefully, that will inspire pitch fees to become norm in all agencies. The idea is to not absorb the shocks of overwork. Make the management feel the pinch too.

Stop whining. Start organising.