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Shop lift: Six steps to elevate your agency (or whatever you call it)

By Published on .

Credit: spyderskidoo/iStock

Talent evaporating. Procurement squeezing. Consultancies invading. The agency business sometimes tends to gripe about the same looming concerns for years. I covered these very topics in these pages.

The good news? I believe this mentality is changing. We're seeing more agencies act. And where they're not, other entities are cropping up to hold the industry accountable. Even better, opportunities for positive changes abound, from smarter operational structures to the fixing of gender and racial disparity issues.

But. (There's always one "but.") Capturing opportunities requires moving fast. So think of this not as prescriptions for "the future," but rather half-a-dozen steps that can be taken now. Wait, agencies are notoriously their own worst clients. Fine, let's give it 12 months. Here, the agency of 2019:

Focused on capabilities, not position statements

Agencies used to undertake forceful branding exercises to develop a sticky phrase that helped differentiate their offers in the market. Why? Because each offer was the same as everyone else's! Not so today. Agencies are specializing. Need a voice solution? An omnichannel retail strategy? A Super Bowl spot? Email marketing? It's getting easier for clients to know where to go, thanks to agencies letting go of "full-service" dreams and focusing more on depth of expertise.

Oh, and clients don't care what you're called. Despite many attempts to kill it, the term "agency" isn't extinct. That's because it works. But you want to be called a "partner," "consultant," "studio"? Fine. It's all fine. OK, maybe "vendor" is still a bit unsavory. But you get the point. Only the output matters, so don't spend time worrying about whether you're an "agency" or not.

Allergic to 'innovation'

This term is typically a catchall for the kinds of things brands need to stay competitive. But here's why it's weak: Doing the new thing alone doesn't solve business problems. Smart strategy, creative, technical skills do—whether it's via a PR campaign, building a new digital product from scratch or an SEO fix. Yammering about innovation delegitimizes the hard work of execution. Execution turns out to be harder, more strategic and more valuable than everyone thought and, in any case, it's what clients are coming to agencies for. Close up those labs, incubators and other gimmicks that no longer attract clients or talent.

Socially engaged

Like it or not, we're staring down two more years of political and cultural unrest. This means agencies have to create environments where talent feels safe to express themselves. Challenging for publicly traded companies, you say? Get over it. It's riskier to be silent. By and large, our clients want us to speak up too. It's why we've seen the rise of CMO activists, such as Antonio Lucio and Diego Scotti. And companies from Airbnb to Merck to Patagonia to Apple to Blackrock are stepping up.

"CEOs have to realize that millennials are coming into the organization and expecting the CEO to represent the values of that organization," Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff wrote in the latest Harvard Business Review.

Glad the reckoning happened

It's painful and it has to be. Nothing will change otherwise. The #MeToo movement caused agencies to take a harder look at themselves, and the behavior of leadership. Whether it's through brave whistle-blowers, hard-hitting media coverage, the new #TimesUpAdvertising group or Diet Madison Avenue, agencies—and the business world, entertainment industry, government, everything really—will be better for being held accountable. As 3% Conference founder Kat Gordon noted in Ad Age recently, safe reporting and clear consequences are lacking in the industry. Solving gender diversity and taking a hard line on harassment issues goes hand in hand. We'll see strengthened policies and more policing.

Have democratized structure

"Mad Men" has been a trope invoked to make fun of agencies for being old-school. But there has been a very real lingering Don Draper effect: It has felt like every agency is in the shadow of one man. But the days of a Don—or a Donna, for that matter—are over. In 2019, there should be no one face of an agency. Operational structures will rapidly become flat and decentralized. CCOs and CSOs should cede the reins to multifunctional creative teams and hands-on strategists to work directly with clients (and clients want to get to know those teams right from the new-business pitch). There's no role left for someone who only manages. Usually this person is often getting in the way of the best work.

Can glimpse life beyond the time sheet

Some are already there but others will get there soon. Hours logged simply don't reflect quality. And clients don't feel like time sheets are a truthful reflector of how much they're getting out of their agencies anyway.

This reflects the general view of forward-thinking companies. "We don't care whether you work eight hours a day or 14 hours a day; we care what you get done. We love someone who's five hours a day and gets done a ton," Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in a speech in 2014.

If the industry can collectively make headway on these critical issues, then the agency of 2019 will be able to do one more thing: rightfully command respect. 

Rupal Parekh is director of brand at Work & Co and a former reporter and editor at Ad Age.

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