Forget Being a 'Lead' Agency; Strive to Be a Dream Agency

And It All Starts With Innovation

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Three recent articles in Ad Age have spurred a furious online debate about whether digital agencies are ready to "lead" and whether the industry even needs big digital agencies anymore. All three suffer from multiple misconceptions about the agency business, so it's time to offer another point of view.

The very idea of a lead agency as the center of command-and-control for other agencies has outlived its usefulness. The model was appropriate for the mass-media age, when the most important thing a brand could do was tell its story through paid media. Long ago, clients separated agencies from the "lead" and formed direct relationships with a mix of different firms. They may have spent more time (and money) with their traditional ad agency, but even this has changed. In some cases, so-called digital agencies have larger budgets and better access to senior client decision-makers, and this trend is growing.

We should worry less about being a "lead" agency and more about being a "dream" agency. We should ask: What do clients need today, and who is best equipped to deliver? This is what all agencies must consider as they create new business models appropriate for the digital age. So, if a client could build the dream agency today, what would it look like?

It would have a thorough understanding of how consumers think and feel, but also how they seek and make and share and transact. It would recognize that the lives of consumers have dramatically transformed in the past 10 years. In an era where Facebook has 350 million members and Google is the world's most valuable media company, the idea that consumers lead increasingly digital lives isn't debatable.

It wouldn't be wedded to a specific craft such as TV or print. Nor would it only think about designing a website. It would do all of those things without bias toward any strategic or tactical solution.

This agency would have innovation at its core and the ability to craft campaigns to promote these innovations. But it would start with the innovation -- not the other way around, as most traditional agencies reflexively deliver campaign ideas as the first step.

Data would be its guiding light. It would have the right people to mine the data, interpret it and, based on the results, provide direction on whether and how to proceed to achieve the best ROI.

It would produce things with efficiency and fidelity, recognizing that brilliant ideas can fall apart with poor execution (a bad user interface, for example). It would understand that clients have an unprecedented opportunity to deliver massive amounts of content via free media channels such as YouTube and Facebook, as well as owned media channels, such as their own websites, mobile apps and Twitter feeds.

Whichever agency gets to this state of Nirvana first is likely to be the most important strategic and creative partner for clients -- even if it's no longer called a "lead" agency. So, who will get there first?

I'd bet on the current crop of large, independent digital-age agencies. The most evolved have the skills to formulate and execute ideas that are digital but extend far beyond it. These agencies have had the advantage of evolving alongside the biggest consumer trend of the 21st century, the digital revolution, just as their predecessors had evolved alongside the biggest consumer trend of the 20th century, the mass adoption of TV.

The question -- "Are these agencies ready to lead?" -- has already been answered by the many clients who have appointed them as their primary strategic agency partners.

Barry Wacksman is exec VP-chief growth officer, R/GA.
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