Changing Role of Agency

Agency-FactorsWhen I used to be on the client side, I liked to talk about agency models with peers who chose that career path.

I published a series of conversations on what I called the agency side of business.

Much has changed since then.

Some friends on the list have moved onto other opportunities to either go in house with a client like Shiv Singh with Pepsi, or focus more on teaching like Edward Boches.

Others are still growing their firms.

As much as we like to indulge in talking about how the agency model itself needs to change, we've had consolidation, incremental addition of services, and some rare evolution of offerings with the addition of innovation and technology teams.

Building true competencies takes time

On the agency side of the business, there is still client billable work, which remains the focus, and a core competency that is part of the agency DNA.

Wearing the client hat, rarely do I see a true "full service" shop that could go across strategy, rock solid creative and communication work, as well as technology implementations that rock your socks off, especially when we're now talking about reaching people who are used to interacting with many types of content and experiences on multiple devices.

There are trade offs you need to make to develop one competency while remaining profitable — mastery in one field comes at the expense of good enough in another.

Which is partly why you see so many brand logos, the very same ones, on so many agency sites — it's not just because marketers don't get integrated or just think project-based.

Has the role of agency truly changed?

The conversation about the changing role of agency so far is outpacing the speed of change. UK-based mobile strategist Tim Dunn says, maybe it's our expectations that need to change, not ad agencies. [hat tip Neil Perkin]

His assessment of the task at hand is quite realistic:

you can take an innovation-led project and scale it (obligatory Nike+ reference) but only if your brand:

a) has a heritage and consumer connection that can realistically support the levels of engagement required

b) has a commitment and huge budgets needed for product development and support over time.

And indeed that is the case, and any marketer worth their salt knows it is. Which is why you end up looking at the best reach possible to get the lift you need to hit goals.

Dunn also does a good job of outlining a list of capabilities that may be missing to hit the ambitious all around agency of record in the short term:

  • Product design and innovation requires people that agencies don’t have: a team of creative technologists, product managers, spare UX people, and of course development resource
  • Agencies work on narrow margins – 10% if you’re lucky. This is really the only number that matters to a CEO who answers to shareholders or Group management, and additional cost is a no
  • Agencies tend not to have mundane skill-sets such as 24/7 support and responsive operations departments

In some cases, agencies don't have core capabilities for marketing/brand strategy thinking, which is why this is either something a consulting firm handles, or the client has invested in growing and bringing that capability in house. Increasingly, it also comes with social technology-savvy.


You get the scope you're prepared for — it's a bit of a Catch-22, where you need to invest in building a capability in order to get hired to do great work using it.

Part of the challenge is that everyone ends up sounding the same in their promotion and pitches, and particularly if your work involves technology — and whose work doesn't anymore? — the landscape is changing very fast. When that happens, we humans tend to hunker down and do what everyone else is doing.

I'm leaving this conversation open ended. While on one hand I believe the role of "agency" has changed, many of the practices — from projects scope to day-in-the-life — are still about the same.

Is this a "cliff" situation, where one day the nature of the work/model will be radically different and wipe off a category? Or will there be a forced evolution over a multiple year time frame? After all, we have been talking about this change for some time…



Valeria is an experienced listener. She is also frequent speaker at
conferences and companies on a variety of topics. To book her for a
speaking engagement click here.

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