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The agency model ain’t broke – but it certainly needs fixing

The consultants are coming. WPP is worried. P&G is piling pressure on its agencies. The doom and gloom fostered by recent headlines is enough to have even the most hardened agency executives considering their next career move. But is it warranted? Are our beloved agencies really in as much trouble as it appears?

Media split with creative. Digital split with brand. Will clients split with (traditional) agency models? Perhaps. But just as agencies changed to adapt to those new world orders, so the agency model needs to evolve, not die. The theory of evolution, as we know, results in natural selection, more commonly known as the survival of the fittest. And the fittest will remain in high demand; brands need a lean team of carefully selected smart thinkers, operating nimbly in concert with their own people, to accelerate growth through best-in-class marketing.

Some would say that the best way to get there is through Sir Martin Sorrell’s new favourite toy, the horizontal team built of hand-picked talent from multiple agencies. Others that only the consultants can truly understand how to earn a seat in the C-suite. A bold few might argue that only the boutique creative shop can truly build a brand.

Might I venture that we stop splitting hairs and just cluster all these offerings together as what they are – modern agency solutions? Whether that’s an agency built at a holding company level, an agency bolted together from the supposedly unholy matrimony of consultants and creatives or (dare I say it), a fully integrated agency like my own, the winners will be the fittest; those that move quicker than the consumer and, increasingly, with the agility their clients are demanding.

Those that adapt and evolve will not just survive, but thrive. Take Harbour, a new ‘agency collective’, for example. Founded by agency veteran Paul Hammersley (full disclosure: an ex-colleague of mine), the company plans to challenge the existing hegemony of the holding companies by bringing together different boutique and specialist agencies to solve client problems under one umbrella. Recent offerings like 'Design and Delivery' point to new models that many clients will find invaluable.

What does that mean for 'traditional' agencies and the agency model overall, then? It means eliminating inefficiency and layers to get match-fit. Marc Pritchard’s call for his agency teams to be made up of 75% creatives may be the industry conference equivalent of clickbait, but the thinking is not unreasonable. It also means blowing up outdated models to move to quicker, better solutions.

Gone are the days of the six-month creative process. Consider ‘sprints’ inspired by design thinking to get to prototyped work quickly. Involve the client early and often, rather than the 'big reveal' after weeks of gestation. Team ‘traditional’ brand planners with disruptive comms thinkers. Why should creatives get to have all the teamwork fun? Eliminate the 20% of agency work that is inefficient and worthless in favor of the workstreams that really get shit done.

The agency model ain’t broke. But it certainly needs fixing. However, rather than some sort of doomsday scenario, I’d argue that this is part of the natural process of evolution. And those that hire the biggest brains, take the biggest leaps in challenging the status quo and, importantly, have the most fun embracing reinvention will be the winners. Survival of the fittest? Game on.

James Hidden is managing director at Ogilvy & Mather Chicago

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