The advent of the internet and disruption of the ad model caused by the proliferation of digital technologies have prompted a number of reactions from ad agencies in the past 15 years. They've ignored the changes, denied them, panicked, created separate organizations to deal with them, panicked some more and procrastinated. Finally, in the past year or two, they've started embracing the changes as part of their business and an opportunity for growth.
This year's American Association of Advertising Agencies Leadership Conference reflected that shift. Gone was the gloom of recent years, and gone was the clubby approach to speaker selection that led to long-winded agency pitches from awkward account men.
In their place was an event that said, "We love this stuff, this is what we do," while parenthetically admitting that ad shops still have a lot to learn and face major challenges, such as operating in a world of addressable, tailored messages.
While previous conference chairs have been defensive, this year's was bullish. Four A's Chairman Tom Carroll, who is also president-CEO of TBWA/Chiat/Day, said, yes, clients have wandered off to test other marketing-services options but are now coming back to the ad agencies. He stressed that these shops are now capable of handling all kinds of marketing.
Even data, he said, is an area that ad agencies are now comfortable with.
The latter point is disputable, and the attentive listener at the conference would have heard Google CEO Eric Schmidt describing a post-branding world that would surely challenge some agencies' raison d'être. But Mr. Carroll made it sound and feel as if agency execs are finally getting on the front foot.
Indeed they are, at least if Ad Age's Agency Report is anything to go by. Shops once considered traditional players now derive more than 10% of their revenue from digital. This might be more of an evolution than the revolution some had anticipated, but it's clearly happening.
And finally the 4A's, under its new leader, Nancy Hill, seems determined to capture the spirit of the movement.