Agencies Should Be Defined by What They Know, Not What They Make

Above All Else, Be Relevant

By Published on .

Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
At their best, advertising agencies grasp the magic of how people communicate with each other. At their best, agencies operate on the front lines of the communications world and harness the forces of culture and society to help their clients influence perceptions and behaviors. At their best, agencies lead their clients through changes in communications technologies, figuring out the most appropriate marketing strategies.

At their worst, agencies get fixated on creating stuff, whether it be an ad, a website or a Twitter feed.

When this happens, clients usually get copycat campaigns that don't connect with the most important communication innovations of the day. Besides turning advertising into a commodity with commodity pricing, this focus on the output also leads to a lot of artificial distinctions between traditional advertising, digital agencies and everything in between. Agencies become defined by what they make instead of by the truths they know.

These days we spend a lot of time splitting hairs about marketing subcategories -- such as traditional and digital -- and their relative importance. Truth is, no sooner than those debates get resolved that the world has changed again. In this environment, the number one job for any agency is to stay relevant. By relevant, I mean to stay on top of the new technologies and ideas that redefine communication behaviors. The only agency model that will really work is one that can keep adapting to these changes. I'm only speaking for myself, but here are the areas where I want my agency to focus so that we can evolve with the communications zeitgeist and not waste our time chasing the trends of the moment.

We're all CIOs. Virtually every agency activity -- from internal operations to client management to campaign delivery -- is built on a technology platform. These are no longer tools supporting the business. They are the business. Likewise, the communications channels you create for yourself, or your agency, may also become the same channels you use for a client campaign. Everyone in the agency needs to understand and apply the strategic value of technology to client engagements.

Life beyond Twitter. We should extend our field of vision beyond advertising to include the entire field of communications. The collapse of the newspaper industry may be a defining moment for this generation and will ripple through the advertising industry. Huge innovations in communications are taking place in political campaigns and global public health initiatives. There's a ton to learn.

Students of collaboration. Advertising has always been a collaborative endeavor, but there still remains a fairly narrow definition of where and how collaboration takes place. I want to look outside of the industry and learn from other fields -- whether it be product design or the delivery of complex consulting services -- that have developed new models for team building and collaboration.

Not all culture is popular. In order to be understood by the broadest audience, mass marketing tailors communications to the lowest common denominator in terms of popular culture and intellect. (Write copy for an eighth-grade reader used to be the rallying cry.) Social media enables extended conversations with smaller groups of people along a broader cultural continuum. To be effective we need to command a much deeper grasp of social, political and artistic trends. Tomorrow's advertising will be forced to speak in a multitude of different voices and intellectual levels. Knockoff campaigns based on the latest movie or TV blockbuster are over.

Science invades the creative department. Social science has always played a role in advertising, but advances in brain science have created disciplines like neuromarketing that are making deeper inroads into the creative process. Who cares what the creative director thinks is cool? What matters is how the neurons are firing in the target market. Within the field of psychology, the science of happiness is yielding new knowledge about how people decide what will make them fulfilled in the future. Someone on our staff should be paying attention.

My conviction is that advertising agencies should become a community full of intellectually curious people. The more social and intellectual and technical diversity we can cultivate the better. I think that agencies should reflect and act on the important events and trends of the day. Clients should feel compelled to work with a given agency because they hold the keys to the mysteries of how people communicate with each other. Agencies should be valued for their ability to open the door to the world in which our clients want to engage. Agencies that deliver on that promise will always be relevant.

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You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson

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