The view from a digital Manhattan: leaders on the future of agency work

In the last 18 months, we’ve spent more time than ever talking about what kind of moment we’re living in. Is this a time of pure catastrophe, or opportunity too? A time for playing it safe, or taking risks? Our US editor Kenneth Hein sat down with agency leaders (clustered around New York, but what does a location mean these days?) to pin down the current moment and what might come next.

It can be hard to recognize an opportunity until it’s too late – often, at first glance, an opportunity will look like a problem or a risk. In fact, depending on your outlook, maybe opportunities, problems and risks are all the same thing.

That’s a conundrum that agencies have been forced to confront in the last 18 months, both for themselves and in their relationships with clients. The Covid-19 pandemic’s deleterious impact on health is inarguable, but with the business world going through its biggest shake-up in living memory, have there been massive opportunities too?

According to our Zoom panel of 10 US agency leaders, the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ “We have the potential to accelerate a transition that would have taken 10 years – we’ve accelerated it into one year,” says Michael Lebowitz, founder and chief executive officer of Big Spaceship. “That creates incredible pressures on the volume, scale and intensity of change – but change is the business we’re in.” The nexus of change for agencies will be in helping organizations to keep up with those accelerations; helping them to get and stay “in touch with the fragmentation and velocity of the world, rather than hanging onto their corporate matrix structures and silos and pretending that nothing’s changed.”

Judith Carr-Rodriguez, chief executive officer and partner at Fig, said: “The pandemic showed that businesses needed thought partnership and help and guidance – they can’t just insource everything.” Brands turned to agencies in a time of need during the pandemic, hastening a realization that agencies can be deeply integrated into the brand’s business, ramping up speed and agility without compromising quality.

Brad Simms, president and chief executive officer at Gale, agrees: “Integration will be a watchword for agencies in the coming months and years. In some cases, this will see brands consolidating their accounts, integrating a single agency deeper than ever before; in others it will mean building teams from across agencies, with the main selection criteria being how well they can integrate (even, perhaps, when others’ credentials are more impressive).”

R/GA’s managing director Michael Olaye says that this represents a major change in the way brands see agencies. “In the past, they saw agencies as specialists, who they went to for services. Now, they’re starting to ask agencies to be a little more in their world, not just relying on RFIs, RFPs and briefs, but to be forward-thinking for them.”

Real threats and real opportunities

Of course, all this talk of opportunity doesn’t make the threats out there any less real. We may be becoming bored of hearing about the looming threats to big companies from the blockchain, cookie-less browsing and the metaverse, but they do contain real danger for brands, says Chris Garbutt, chief creative officer at Vice Media Group. “The biggest risk is becoming irrelevant in all that. The biggest challenge is finding a relevance that’s valuable to audiences.” Once again, though, challenge and opportunity come hand-in-hand. “Our biggest opportunity is to help brands navigate that change and be right on the forefront of it.” All of which “demands a whole new way of thinking about marketing. Creatively, that’s super-exciting because there’s just a white space. It’s wide open.”

Brands’ panic changed not only how they worked with agencies; it also changed who was reaching out. Longtime allies of chief marketers, agencies have found themselves increasingly working with chief brand officers, chief technology officers, chief experience officers, chief information officers – the list, presumably, goes on. Perhaps the long-vaunted death of siloed business is finally on its way, with an increasingly holistic approach to change ushered in, no doubt, with the help of the agencies whose cross-organizational access has gone through the roof. For Christina DeGuardi, president and chief client officer at Giant Spoon, now “agencies are winning by actually understanding the audience, and actually understanding the client’s business, and getting deeper into the corners and holes of that business.”

The challenge, then, is editing, says Lisa Clunie of Joan Studios – both for agencies and the clients they help. With every platform available and costs of entry ever-decreasing, which platforms are going to matter the most? The role of agencies in this wide-open world is simplifying, pointing the way and showing leadership. For Jason Harris of Mekanism, that makes simplification the watchword for 2022. “In a noisy and overcomplex world, being really simple and consistent with your message, your audience, your tactic – how you’re going out to market – that’s going to win the day. If you try to do everything, you’re going to end up with nothing and no one’s going to know what you stand for.”

Speaking of 2022, if there’s one trend that must threaten agencies’ ability to deliver this kind of change, it’s what’s variously being called ‘the big leave’ or ‘the great resignation’ – the late-pandemic trend of resignations that forebodes a talent deficit. For Dan Langlitz, Strawberry Frog’s head of expansion, it should remind us that ours is an industry all about people; if nothing else, the next 12 months should be about “finding ways to connect with people ... our agencies are at risk of eroding if human connection isn’t there.” The connections that sustain our business – whether that’s with a new hire, a desperate chief technology officer, or an old partner chief marketer – are based on emotion. Lisa Buckley of Vayner Media bubbles down the challenge facing agencies to one of working with genuine compassion, to “underpin all that we do with empathy, for people, for clients and for brands.”

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