There’s a fab post from Faris Yakob that’s doing the rounds at the moment.
It asks the question, what are advertising agencies for?
In it he posits the idea that agencies need to decide what business they are in.
If defined by their output, some advertising agencies currently seem in the business of making short films that briefly entertain distracted viewers while they wait for what they’re really interested in.
That’s offensively and spectacularly reductive, of course, but the extreme view highlights the need for any business or industry facing the threat of disruption or disintermediation (as all agencies are) to re-frame its definition of what it does.
And these days particularly the need for re-framing comes thick and fast. The pace of change means an agency needs to accelerate even more quickly if it wants to stay ahead.
I was speaking with Neil recently about the changing nature of the communications landscape and how agencies are dealing with the challenges it brings, particularly those wrought by technology.
Skillsets like SEO, UX design, creative, content creation, partnership marketing, social media monitoring, analytics, insight generation, mobile and event marketing all have a home at MEC.
That’s some list.
It’s also a list that doesn’t even touch the traditional media planning and buying that perhaps many still characterise as a media agency’s sole remit.
From gorillas with calculators, then, to monkeys with typewriters, perhaps? Capable, if not of Shakespeare, then certainly of myriad things no-one would have predicted even five years ago.
This has been possible because media agencies have been re-conditioning themselves.
Recruitment has taken on an combinatorial and imaginative purpose with people drawn from more new backgrounds than ever before.
But the good media agencies have also inculcated a culture of experimentation so that employees can get hands-on with the new tools and services that are revolutionising marketing for our clients. Neil shared the remarks of someone else he’d spoken to on the subject – it’s not enough for planners merely to observe any more; we have to experience it for ourselves.
Now that’s certainly true. But we also have an obligation to balance anecdotal experience with the analytical. It’s good to get excited about new stuff, and to understand it from the inside (whether it’s blogging, coding, event organising, networking as well as the operational disciplines of an agency) as long as we retain the objective view we need to evaluate the value for clients.
In other words, what we’ve done well is interrogate the possibilities of the future while being able to handhold clients as they walk towards it.
Talk to agency leaders and it’s clear that actually accommodating all of this operationally is pretty difficult. Investing in new and uncertain businesses is fraught with risk. Joining up an expanding array of services and delivering on them for clients is a huge challenge.
It’s one thing spotting the developments and developing the services required to solve the unprecedented questions clients are asking us. It’s quite another knowing – when so many things are changing, so fast – which horses to unreseveredly back.
So where does this leave us with the Faris’ original (paraphrased) question: what are media agencies for?
Now we’ve accommodated all this new stuff, how should we re-frame the business that we’re in?
Given how well our output has responded to the imperatives of digital disruption – unlike a number of ad agencies who struggle it seems with even doing decent online advertising – you could certainly say we’ve earned the right.
But what would we call ourselves? A communications agency? Anyone could say that. Would people the industry even accept a change? You can imagine the cynicism. And I wonder whether anybody at a media agency even thinks it’s a good idea that we should?
Whatever the description of what we do, you could argue the important thing is that we’re doing it.
But we shouldn’t underestimate how self-definition allows a more clear-eyed view of where we want to go, the right spaces to invest in, and how to accelerate ahead of the future.