Agencies Agency Models

Are we in the age of the post-agency agency?

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By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

May 15, 2023 | 12 min read

Are agencies really consultants now? Or strategic partners? Or tech companies? We asked a bumper crop of leaders from The Drum Network whether the post-agency paradigm has begun.

A butterfly emerging from its chrysalis

Are agencies all more than ‘just’ agencies? / Suzanne D. Williams via Unsplash

We’re constantly hearing that agencies are becoming more than ‘just’ agencies. Gary Vaynerchuk recently told The Drum that creative agencies are just consultancies; others have identified shifts toward strategic partnership and software provision; plenty more are rejecting the ‘agency’ moniker.

So: are we living in a new paradigm? Are ‘traditional’ agencies becoming less relevant? Are the best pivoters the best players? Marketing execs gave us their takes.

James Coulson, managing partner, consultancy, Kepler: “If you are in the proud traditionalist camp, your head is in the sand. The role of the agency remains to understand how to reach advertisers’ customers with a message that drives change and measure the effectiveness of doing so. But the way agencies must now deliver for clients is unrecognizable from 10 years ago.

“In a world where nearly 70% of media spend is digital, and the roles and responsibilities of agency v advertiser have transformed, the agency has had to adapt. To be credible, agencies now need proprietary technology, and an offering that blends media, creative and consultancy, and is squarely centered on data and technology. The scale and agility of the work needed to remain competitive require a different approach. Agencies now must provide a service that is an extension of a client’s team, not separate from it.”

Sophie Wooller, director of digital transformation, Croud: “Have agencies ever ‘just’ been agencies? We've evolved from working in print to TV to navigating a sprawling internet. The advances in the data and technology we have at our disposal to plan, design, create and deploy media seem never-ending.

“Throughout, agencies have done what they do best: identify the hook that will speak to consumers, and ensure that it is put in front of consumers. It’s our clients, brands and advertisers, that turn to us (pay us!) to access this expertise. Call yourself whatever you want (although your SEO might take a hit...), but fundamentally we’ll continue to be a force to be reckoned with while we support our clients in reaching their consumers in ways they cannot themselves.”

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Alice Regester, co-founder and chief executive officer, 33Seconds: “For us, diversification has happened for a range of reasons, all of which help strengthen our core agency offer. Our decision to become a content publisher around the positive actions young people can take to fight climate change strengthens our credibility in a sector we advise clients in. Before long, Earthtopia became a bona fide influencer, as one of the largest eco-communities on TikTok, demonstrating to clients our deep understanding of social media and Gen Z. It also helps attract and retain staff.

“The agency landscape is evermore competitive and cluttered, so evolving and innovating by building on existing skills provides a clear USP and gives clients more of what they need. The traditional agency model is modernizing and evolving for the better.”

Claire Humphris, chief executive officer, Iris London: “People aren’t influenced by advertising anymore. They’re influenced by each other.

“They will screen you out because you’re ‘an ad’ – not their mates or a hot cultural drop or something they’re passionate about (football, analog music on cassette, basket making). Time is spent in communities that fuel their interests.

“Along the way, creativity has been democratized. Anyone with access to social media can be creative. There are huge implications for agencies.

“Now, the creative department is just the starting point to answer client marketing challenges. The route to success is to fuse the best in-house talent with the freshest hot-right-now creators: people who are part of a passion point community but (unlike pay-and-spray ‘influencers’) with genuine creative talents, willing to collaborate with agencies for mutual benefit.

“The new age of participation is here, and it’s all about co-creation with audience communities.”

Ed Howarth, deputy chief executive officer and chief client officer, Oliver: “In today’s age of disruption and dysfunction, brands are focused on creating sustainable supply chains that drive growth.

“To compete, brands must maximize their external marketing and advertising partnerships. For that, they need sidekicks, not superheroes.

“Gone are the days when agencies existed to save brands. With access to the best people and technology, brands are the heroes of their own stories. The client-agency relationship has evolved to one of strategic partnership: an agile, dynamic duo that can scale and flex in real-time to suit the brand’s needs while connecting talent and top quality-creative with data-led strategies and a solid martech stack.

“Brands need fresh thinking, flexibility, and fast turnarounds. The solution? An agency partner that’s transparent, trustworthy, and a teammate. They need Robin, not Batman.”

Tom Jarvis, chief executive officer, Wilderness: "In a world of hybrid working, clients want to feel like their agency is an extension of their team, and with that comes an ever-greater need for agencies to make the moments of interaction with their clients personal, unique, and memorable.

“Meanwhile, there’s financial pressure on agencies to create sustainable business models, so teams are looking to make their processes easily repeatable and automated. The challenge for the agency of the future is to get the right balance between automation and personal interaction."

Ryan Green, senior vice-president of marketing and innovation, Coegi: “Outsourced marketing services aren’t going out of style, even if the word ‘agency’ is. Most brands have in-house capabilities; while they might not need a formal agency of record, marketing keeps getting more complicated and brands need partners to keep up.

“My firm has always leaned towards strategic partnership; we perform a growing array of services for clients that are adjacent to our core media competency. If you can solve problems efficiently and increase bottom-line profitability for your client, it doesn’t matter what you call yourself; you are valuable.”

John Barham, managing director, Roast: “The agency-client dynamic is often in flux, and with recession and changed expectations post-Covid, this won’t cease soon.

“Fundamentally, an agency’s purpose has not changed. Brands come to agencies to assist them with challenges they cannot navigate themselves. While we might diagnose a shift away from pure execution (a dated way of working with agencies), brands are increasingly reliant on the wider skillsets and technology that agencies bring to the table. As the digital world becomes more technologically complex and data becomes more fragmented (not to mention emerging AI opportunities), agencies’ breadth and depth of expertise is not going to be easily replicated. We might be doing different types of tasks, but the purpose and dynamic remain the same.”

Simon Bollon, director and founder, Boutique: “Agency services are broadening as the lines between services greyer. Ultimately, agencies are here to help solve problems or take advantage of opportunities to drive growth for clients, but with the diversification of channels, a more ‘consultative’ approach is natural. Single-channel solutions are not fit for purpose, and clients have greater responsibilities, wider remits and less time.

“Agencies must do more and be more. Less execution, more strategic problem-solving. The challenge agencies have is charging appropriately for the time and expertise, and adapting to client needs.”

Ala Uddin, executive creative director, Mud Orange: “We’re seeing client teams appreciating the importance of creative thinking beyond communication briefs, helping them boost their competitive edge. We've had more briefs from long-standing clients that go way beyond the typical creative agency role: helping them interview marketing director candidates, designing sub-brand portfolio structures beyond brand architecture, and getting more involved in the business strategy side of things. Recently, we’ve been brought in to help shape product development for a tech brand.

“It’s great to let our creative juices flow across all dimensions of those businesses and to see client teams understanding how agencies’ strategy-led creative thinking is hugely valuable beyond traditional advertising and branded comms. With the ever-evolving nature of businesses, creative thinkers can propel them to new levels of success by being involved beyond the expected.”

Matt Lewis, UK president, Momentum Worldwide: “Agencies are connectors; the wires; that trusted friend that can always get you in.

“Malcolm Gladwell talked about the importance of ‘Connectors’: unique people who can help by tapping into their networks to access resources. That’s what great agencies do: build bridges and link up the world, streamline communications and scale opportunities. Agencies can borrow insights from one industry to create a new lens on another, finding new creative doors into culture and commerce along the way. This week we’ve connected a client with a luxury expert, combined two unique business models together, and applied a Gen Z research study to aid a B2B challenge.”

Oli Green, executive chairman, Brave Bison: "At Brave Bison, we believe that our unique blend of media, marketing, and tech sets us apart from the traditional 'agency' mold. Our expertise in this combination is increasingly necessary as marketing and CTO budgets converge. We have a deep understanding of platforms such as Salesforce, SAP, BigCommerce, and Adobe, as well as expertise in content, creative, data science, and media.

“Our goal is to build a media, marketing, and technology company for the new era. We’re looking to create a much bigger company in this space. We want to continue to evolve with new platforms and products and join the dots in this fragmented ecosystem. Brave Bison is not just an agency, but a radically different marketing company that's here for the long term."

Bertie Ager, strategy director, 2Heads: “‘Agency’: noun. A business or organization providing a particular service on behalf of another business, person, or group.

“How can it be the end of the agency, when that’s the definition of an agency? We should worry less about what we’re called and more about the cool shit we show clients, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

“Agencies evolve. Gone are the ‘good old days’ (which on reflection were pretty bad). In agency life, you eat what you kill; you must be faster, better, leaner, keener, than the competition. That means embracing and deploying innovation, doubling down on your people, getting up close and personal with audiences, digging deep into culture, and listening to clients. Then comes the hard work: translating all this into thoughtful, kick-ass creative.

“The agency is dead, long live the agency.”

Agencies Agency Models

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