Survival of the fittest in the agency world

According to Darwin, it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Hummingbirds have long beaks, stray dogs in Moscow take the subway and New York bed bugs are more resilient than ever.

In the world of advertising, agencies as a species have also adapted with time. Ten years ago the focus was on mobile and digital. Then there was a shift towards local-regional markets. Now we see the emergence of the full-service model as agencies try to respond to complex demands from clients and consumers.

When Sir Martin Sorrell writes about WPP’s integrated “Team” model and Maurice Levy says his vision for the future is "modular instead of being siloed", we get the impression that the future of advertising may lie in strength in numbers. Woe be the agency that opts to stand alone; a vendor hawking one category of product beside a Walmart with 200,000 SKUs.

Will specialist agencies ever be able to provide the same extent of service as full-service agencies? No. But neither will a full service-agency be able to provide the degree of depth that a specialist agency can deliver. It’s a face-off between the big picture and the detailed experience, and the options can get overwhelming for those who feel they have to pick a side.

The best thing agencies can do is build their arsenal of great talent, structure processes to ensure agile delivery and invest in building a reputation for outstanding work. You can put those capabilities in one box or stack them in many boxes. It doesn’t matter if you come as part of a group or present credentials as a niche independent. It is safe to say that the one thing we can bet on is that the ideal agency model will be any structure that works for the client- and delivers results.

Build an arsenal of great talent

Anyone who appreciates service and knowledge will remind you that there will always be a need for the expert. It also pays to take a look at history. Time has shown that the nature of creativity is to define itself away from the pack. A sign of expertise is to be able to focus on one skill set. The danger for full-service agencies is they can lose the views of the expert in their pool of partners. Specialist agencies need business leaders who understand the broader picture to avoid tunnel vision.

Be agile in delivery

To ask the question of which agency model will win in the future is to discount that thecmarketing ecosystem is hell-bent on disruption. What form agencies take today may work over the next two to three years, but then it’ll be time to reassess. The mediums of advertising will demand new capability and workflow. We’ll see a case study that proves an anomaly could be the new normal. Someone will invent a new way of doing business, and the Uber model, which is encroaching on the advertising industry, will look outdated later.

Invest in producing outstanding results 

When full-service agencies compete against other, capability becomes table stakes and what sets one name plate from another is the legacy of great work. If we no longer can identify an agency’s work by its “signature” approach – like they did in the ‘golden age’ of advertising – then we’ll recognise an agency by the results it produces. Creativity is subjective and can be argued by many, but performance is tangible and evidence of a structure that works.

All of the above needs people who are constantly learning and relearning. Are you?

The writer is Shufen Goh, co-founder of R3 Worldwide, president of IAS

(Photo courtesy: Shutterstock)